PICK: Leni

Flirting with disaster, in the form of Hitler.

Imagine a play so well conceived, staged, and performed, you'd ask to see it again as soon as the curtain call ends. Now consider a historical personality so much larger than life that to fully flesh her out requires two performers. That's Leni, Strawberry Theatre Workshop's thought-provoking tour through the world of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.Riefenstahl was the silent-movie actress-turned-director who gave the Third Reich its visual aesthetic through her 1930s films Triumph of the Will and Olympia. Riefenstahl's images were composed with nearly mathematical precision, and as the footage from the Nuremburg party rally shows, not a hair seems out of place anywhere. For the first time in the cinematic era, the camera establishes a reality that an impressionable public believes should be the New World Order.In Sarah Greenman's script for Leni, these images all tumble together in a multimedia format that includes live camera footage. Leni the filmmaker attempts to explain her perspective by directing a biographical documentary starring a younger alter ego. Amy Thone plays the postwar Helene (it turns out "Leni" is a nickname) as a study in wounded Teutonic grandeur, while Alexandra Tavares enters the film set as a younger Leni full of bubbly possibility. Soon we see her in Hitler's office, regaling the Fuehrer with tales of Parisian parties toasting Triumph of the Will and not-so-subtly batting her eyes and adjusting her stockings. It's easy to picture a twinkle in Hitler's eye as he leans against his desk, arms folded, hanging on every word, because that's precisely what everyone in the audience is doing.Although she was never a card-carrying National Socialist, Riefenstahl was both made and destroyed by the Nazi party. When Helene convinces Leni to take a seat before the cameras to justify her actions, Leni dismisses the postwar Western hypocrites who branded her as Hitler's most successful propagandist (Triumph of the Will and Olympia both garnered numerous international accolades and continue to be screened even today) even as Madison Avenue co-opted her point of view for profit. "I am not responsible for what was done with my film," she says flatly. And then Riefenstahl stands before the flickering images of contemporary culture that owe everything to her work. One glimpse at the sleek and chiseled bodies used to push Eternity and Obsession, and Abercrombie and Fitch models' perfect Aryan features, and it's clear she's absolutely right.There's a utilitarian simplicity at work in Rhonda Soikowski's direction here,especially evident in the live and filmed action interwoven by an unseen third character, Leni's apprentice. For a two-person show, it's an incredibly busy script, but Greenman demonstrates a masterful confidence of her own as her text darts from one decade to the next and one Leni to another. In several moments, the Lenis even bicker over recollections or which way to proceed. It shouldn't work, but it does, to stunning effect. And the stagecraft is flawless: Costumes, set pieces, old drawers full of raw footage, even a multitude of lighting cues are put in play to usher viewers first into Riefenstahl's workspace, then into her mind.According to the program notes and Greenman's script, Riefenstahl died unbowed and unrepentant in 2003, just a few weeks after her 101st birthday. But questions about her work, and how images can be manipulated for politics and commerce, remain as haunting as the cinematic "Springtime for Hitler" Riefenstahl left as her legacy. For a time during the war, Triumph of the Will was the only film playing in Germany. Now it's the only place where der Fuehrer's thousand-year Reich exists. Did her images send a country to war? Did she have the blood of millions on her hands? Or was she just a resolute film director who made a place for herself in history by depicting the Master Race in ascension? It seems even the two Lenis aren't sure, but they're locked in a powerful debate you won't want to miss.

 
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