L to R: Amanda Grove as Leni Riefenstahl, Robert DaPonte as The Soldier in Madhouse Theatre's PLAYING LENI running at the Adrienne through June 11.

Madhouse Theater Company’s PLAYING LENI is Spellbinding

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More than any other historical figure and his followers, Hitler and the Nazis are shorthand for evil. Few people emerge from the close contact with the Austrian-German dictator and his diabolical band of thugs with even a shred of good reputation intact. This is what makes Leni Riefenstahl, the title character of Madhouse Theater Company’s world premiere production PLAYING LENI, such an interesting subject.

L to R: Amanda Grove as Leni Riefenstahl, Robert DaPonte as The Soldier in Madhouse Theater Company's PLAYING LENI running at the Adrienne through June 11. (Photo Credit: Paola Nogueras)

As this confused but spellbinding play opens, an American soldier (Robert DaPonte) stands center stage, poised arms-on-hips like a hero from a classic movie. Riefenstahl (Amanda Grove) enters dramatically and the two swap clever stylized dialog. The soldier has come to arrest Riefenstahl, and she is turning her arrest into a scripted film, presenting her defense for her role in the Nazi propaganda machine.

The real-life Riefenstahl is a character as complex as any to walk a stage. Hitler’s favorite director, she is remembered today chiefly for her movie Triumph of the Will, a cinematic masterpiece that used innovative film-making techniques to present a hagiographic look at the dictator’s 1934 Nuremberg rally. The film runs onscreen as the audience members settle into their seats at the Adrienne Theatre Skybox. It’s power remains evident, but watching mesmerizing (though eventually tedious) scenes of frog-stepping Nazis and throngs of adoring spectators one can’t help but think of the brutal ends to which this outpouring of national fervour was channeled.

I last saw the film in a college film class, when it was presented between The Battleship Potemkin and Citizen Kane as examples of early high points of the cinematic art. But despite her recognition as a pioneer film-maker, Riefenstahl’s personal relationships with Hitler and Joseph Goebbels permanently stained her reputation; she lived another sixty years after the end of World War II, but never made another movie.

“The Nazi’s were thugs,” Riefenstahl says in PLAYING LENI. “I made those films because I didn’t have a choice.”

“You know that’s a lie,” the G.I. responds.

“That’s my story and that’s how it will be told.”

PLAYING LENI moves convincingly from setting to setting, from Bavarian mountain chalet to a Berlin cabaret to the Polish front as Riefenstahl attempts to justify her collaboration. Praise for these effortless shifts goes to simple but effective set design by Lance Kniskern, skilled direction by Seth Reichgott, and elegant costumes by Regina Rizzo. Grove storms through the scenes, giving her all in a powerful comic performance. DaPonte is equally adept as her dubious captor.

Robert DaPonte as The Soldier, Amanda Grove as Leni Riefenstahl in PLAYING LENI, a Madhouse Theater production. (Photo Credit: Paola Nogueras)

The real-life Riefenstahl was confined for three years after the war, but never convicted of any crime. In reality, as in the play, it is difficult to know how complicit the director was in the crimes of her patrons. She made the single greatest piece of pro-Nazi propaganda, used concentration camp victims as extras in a movie, and corresponded with the greatest embodiment of evil of her century, but she never joined the Nazi party, stopped making films for the party after seeing atrocities in Poland, and claimed she was forced to make those films. PLAYING LENI mines this ambiguity superbly. A brisk 70 minutes, it’s an entertaining comedy, without ever being laugh-out-loud funny. In the end, though, it suffers from an inability to decide how to treat its subject: as a sympathetic captive, a headstrong artist, or a treacherous villain.

“Evil isn’t that hard, is it?” Riefenstahl asks in the play, implying that others would’ve done the same in her position. The real-life soldier upon which Daponte’s character is based was Budd Schulberg, a renowned novelist and screenwriter (credits include The Harder They Fall and On the Waterfront). When it came to make the key moral decision of his career, Schulberg did choose evil: he named names of Hollywood communists to the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Committee. PLAYING LENI never explores this interesting twist, but it doesn’t matter: there are few things with moral equivalence to the acts of Riefenstahl’s cohorts.

She remains unforgiven in my book.

PLAYING LENI
by David Robson and John Stanton
Directed by Seth Reichgott
May 27 – June 11, 2011
Madhouse Theater Company
at the Adrienne Theatre Skybox
2030 Sansom Street, 3rd Floor
Philadelphia, PA
267-571-9623
www.madhousetheater.org