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A CurtainUp Philadelphia Review
Before the live part of the production begins, a B&W film shows enormous numbers of goose-stepping troops intercut with heroic shots of Hitler, who salutes as more and more troops endlessly march by. If you can manage to goose-step outside the film's content to look critically at the images, you see Riefenstahl's remarkable artistry and expert eye for light, dark, composition, spectacle, and drama.
Eventually the long lines of Nazis on the screen give way to a small two-actor farce performed on stage by Amanda Grove as Leni Riefenstahl and Robert DaPonte as The Soldier. The characters' initially caricatured and skit-like exchanges are followed by a "real," yet still overstated acting style that trivializes the play and eclipses the actors' abilities. The old B&W film footage is more viscerally real than the real actors.
The story on stage takes place within a framework of the characters acting in and repeatedly revising scenes for a movie. The larger play, along with the movie ostensibly being made concerns Riefenstahl's possibly revisionist, palatable spin on her history. Eventually she points her camera at The Soldier, but the movie thread is inconsistent, and it unravels.
Although by design the comedy is bombastic, several little moments directed by Seth Reichgott, are truly funny. For instance, there's a crazy car-driving scene backgrounded by a rearview video of Bavarian-looking countryside. The show also benefits from Daniel Perelstein's nicely turned out sound effects.
The clash of artificially presented humor butts up against the opening film's solar plexis-hitting reality, and creates a dissonance that goes well beyond what's evidently intended by the playwrights. On the heels of the powerful opening film, the pseudo-comic treatment around an ethical question makes for a divide this play can't bridge. The incongruity produces gut level unease and an underlying sense of inappropriateness.
This is not comfortable like The Producers, which could successfully bring us "Springtime for Hitler" because it never flirted with real tragedy. If, instead of opening with a visual bombardment of actual filmed Nazis, Playing Leni had opened with something like Donald Duck in Der Fuehrer's Face or Chaplin's The Great Dictator, the whole effect might have been different and this production might have been less trivial and more congruent. Or maybe not.
Writers David Robson and John Stanton (Madhouse founder) presented part of this work at Spark 10 Showcase. (Titled Dysfictional Circumstances, it won the '10 Hotel Obligado Audience Award for New Work.) A version was presented at the Philly Fringe. While the writers' talent and dedication are not in question, the detailed research that designing this show surely entailed doesn't come through with enough substantive information. A way needs to be found to flesh out the person and issues under examination and to open up the kinds of questions the writers are attempting to elicit. So this comedy, essentially a scan that is out of its depth, tacitly invites the audience to make uninformed speculations and unsupported attempts at judgments.
Playing Leni is at once an uneasy alliance of film images, a spoof, and a lite investigation into questions regarding the Leni conundrum. Madhouse Theater Company has done a good thing bringing the piece to a full stage production where it can be seen and discussed. The theater should address issues like this one. Maybe in the process the writers will take away insights. Theater always needs the winds of new works blowing through. And it's the small theater companies, though strapped and on the edge, that are well placed to take chances producing new work. It's a big job that older, traditionally heavily subscriber-based theaters often won't risk doing. So kudos to Madhouse for taking on this new play and having fun with it in the process.
Note 1: Does it bother anyone else that Leni's name is frequently mispronounced, as it is in this play? Leni Riefenstahl, born in Berlin, was not an American boy. Her name is pronounced "Lay-nee" with the European long a sound for the e. It's disconcerting to hear her called "Lenny," something akin to pronouncing the great German composer Wagner's name as if he were related to actor Robert Wagner.
Note 2: It was a sweltering Opening Night when the play was performed in a criminally hot theater space. The new Adrienne Theatre Skybox is a sweatbox. The theater needs air conditioning or fans. Can some kind donor dig down and come up with a contribution for that? Luckily the show is just 70 minutes long. Another ten minutes and it's likely the performers and audience would have passed out from heat prostration.