By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
|Photo by David Flad|
Playwright Lee tries to skirt these two pitfalls by, paradoxically, stepping into both, or at least appearing to. It's an attempted sleight of hand he cannot pull off, however valiant, resulting in a flawed lesson on moral and artistic compromise. The story adopts a familiar tack by focusing on an apolitical sculptor named Anton M├╝ller (Matt Kirkwood), who's been commissioned to create a head of Hitler (Paul Perri) long before the latter's accession to the chancellorship. (M├╝ller actually produces many Adolf heads, even if sometimes it seems as though he's been working on the same F├╝hrerkopffor 20 years.) By having the Nazi leader drop into the sculptor's studio over a two-decade period, Lee reveals the pressures exerted upon an artist who's struck one of the Faustian deals of all time, as well as suggesting the changing moods of Anton's subject.
Well, perhaps "changing" is going a bit far, for Lee's Hitler is always consistently Hitler; let's just say we catch him in some goofy moments, as when he mendaciously flatters Friedrich Nietzsche's sister (June Sanders) or picks up public-speaking tips from an acting coach (Paul Witten). The story begins with M├╝ller's de-Nazification interview with an American Army officer (Ken Zazayna) and flashes backward in time to these and other comical moments, which is another way of saying Hitler's Head ricochets between Bertolt Brecht's satirical The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and Ronald Harwood's 1996 drama about Wilhelm F├╝rtwangler, Taking Sides. (As Lee rather obviously points out, you really did have to be a rocket scientist to avoid Allied justice in postwar Germany.)
Lee forgoes giving us a gavel-and-thunder morality tale, but goes the gonzo route instead, by having his story stage-managed by a movie-camera-wielding Leni Riefenstahl and Br├╝nnhilde-costumed Hermann G├Âring (Alicia Wollerton and James K. Ward). The two jump onto the set whenever the narrative starts limping or when its tone veers a bit too close to the serious, variously commenting to M├╝ller upon his actions or inaugurating new scenes. This lets us study the artist as Hitler and his entourage come and go, along with visits from a Jewish businessman (Barry Thompson) who also hires M├╝ller to sculpt his likeness, as well as appearances from Goebbels' (Loren Rubin) enigmatic mistress (Sile Bermingham).
Unfortunately, the Leni-Hermann shtick falls flat, an intrusive gambit that is too over-the-top to be anything but irritating. One night Lee, in a post-show Q&A with the audience, confessed that he had really wanted to write a play about Riefenstahl, but passed on the idea, since he also desired his character to be male. He really should have stuck with his initial impulse, because his play's Achilles' heel is mainly M├╝ller. Unlike most other fictional Third Reich fellow travelers who barter integrity for personal gain, Lee's sculptor is neither a banal bureaucrat nor an ambitious ladder climber -- in fact, he couldn't care less if either opportunity or Mephisto came knocking. Instead, he's a man with seemingly no inner life or trace of greed, who merely allows himself to be talked into sculpting the F├╝hrer's noggin. Occasionally he rises from a chair long enough to complain about all the people walking into his atelier unannounced, but he remains as formless a lump of clay as any found in his studio.
GRANTED, IMAGINING THESE KINDS OF FIGURES ON PAPER IS always easier than bringing them to life onstage. Across town at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center, in his play The Envoy, Swiss playwright Thomas H├╝rlimann attempts a similar character analysis by having a guilt-ridden Swiss diplomat to Hitler's Berlin bare his soul after the war. It doesn't help matters that for most of the play he aims his windy confessions not at any cast members, but to a bugged chandelier.
Hitler's Head has other problems, though. Joseph Klein, the Jewish businessman, is almost annoyingly portentous in his conversation, and his disturbing "dreams" about the future betray the high-definition imagery of clairvoyance. His inclusion proves to be an ungainly bit of dramaturgy -- especially when we're told that Hitler's spies know everything about M├╝ller except, until the very end apparently, that his other client happens to be a Jew. Finally, there is an embarrassingly confusing scene in which M├╝ller believes himself to be Friedrich Nietzsche, a fantasia in which his studio is invaded by both an American GI (Matthew Thompson) and a German soldier (Todd Buteaux). It's a distracting burlesque and seems to be included simply, again, to break up any tonal heaviness.
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