Tuesday, December 18, 2007

PLAY: "The Puppetmaster of Lodz"

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Finkelbaum (the magnificent Robert Zukerman) hasn't left his attic apartment in ten years. Occasionally, he peers nervously through the keyhole, listening and looking for intruders, before cracking the door wide enough to snatch the day's groceries, left by his good-natured concierge (Suzanne Toren), but for the most part, our frightened hero (clad in a dirty T-shirt, worn suspenders, and musty pants) simply talks to an unmoving lump in his bed, his wife, Ruchele . . . a life-sized puppet made of cloth. But don't judge so quickly. You might act the same if you'd narrowly escaped Birkenau, walked eight scattered sleepless days and nights through the woods, and at last found a bit of shelter near Berlin. You, looking for comfort, might also have built companions for yourself -- you are, after all, a puppetmaster -- and now you, too, might disbelieve that the war is over (though it is 1950, time is not nearly so strong as memory). After all, "they fabricated plenty of other things besides the news," you might say. "So that people would suspect nothing, they fabricated false train stations, false station masters, false houses, with false flower pots, and the people believed . . . believed . . . and when they made them enter a gas chamber, telling them it was a shower, they believed . . . they believed."

Such is the conceit of Gilles Segal's powerful play, The Puppetmaster of Lodz, and though it's not entirely clear why it has taken the concierge so long to seek professional help in coaxing out the survivor (or why they don't simply bash down the door), such logical thoughts only arise in retrospect, for within the play itself, "They say if you want to, you can. If you absolutely want to believe, you can always find a way . . . " And Segal has. In this fine translation by Tonen Sara O'Connor, brought to life by Silbert's rich performance (conviction, desperation, hope admixed with despair, &c.), it's easy for the audience to understand where Finklebaum is coming from: "It's hard to survive when you trust people." The question then: what sort of life can one have without that trust?

No life at all, which is why Finklebaum has tangled the strings of his imagination so tightly around himself that even when we can see the glimmer of recognition in his eyes, it is quickly dulled by the happy lies strewn around him. What's more, even Segal gives us a little reason to trust: in succession, a Russian, an American, a Jew, and a German all try their hand at convincing Finklebaum that he is now safe, yet all four roles are played by the same actor (Daniel Damiano), a point that only re-enforces Finkelbaum's perhaps righteous paranoia. Even cleverer, Segal plays with our own paranoia, making us wonder if Finkelbaum's refusal to accept reality isn't compensation for something darker, some secret about his escape that only comes out in darkly comic (and then simply dark) re-enactments of his life before and within the camp.

Bruce Levitt's direction is almost as striking as Ralph Lee's gaunt and forlorn puppets, and both work hand in hand (or wrist and string) to tenderly pull us along, right into darkness or, perhaps, salvation. Zukerman's performance is also helped by Roman Tatarowicz's clever set design, which cramps him in a dingy room that's akin to a bomb shelter, yet also crowds his visitors into a narrow hallway, of which we can really only see as much of as Finkelbaum can, through the peephole. But the best effect of all is Segal's writing, which goes from clever logic to wry dismissals, embittered refusals, and finally, bleak parody:

"What? it's not spectacular enough, is that it?" says Finkelbaum of the epic puppet show he's been working on. "Just wait . . . First, I haven't told you that he belonged to the Sonderkommando, that's to say that all day long he burned the bodies of his brothers and sisters. If that's not enough, we can make him be obliged to mount erotic performances by making use of fresh corpses like Japanese puppets for an S. S. officer, amateur aficionado of Bunraku . . . and if you absolutely insist, we can add some jazz music at that point and put in your tap number . . ." Here is a mind that's been stretched to the breaking point so many times that it desperately wishes it could go mad ("For me not to have become mad, that is the most shattering proof of the non-existence of God . . . a little imagination, yes . . . madness, no"). Instead, it can only reenact, and even those happy reenactments, undiluted by clouds of insanity, must turn to ash -- in fact, there's an oven conveniently placed in the corner.

The Puppetmaster of Lodz is pretty powerful stuff, and what's most impressive about the production is that you leave without feeling that you've had your strings pulled, or that your emotions have been manipulated at all. Instead, there is real empathy for the humanity that Segal has fashioned, and real mourning for all those lives lost, lives not necessarily lost to something as easy as death.

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