They Saved Hitler's Head 

The Führer as model tyrant

Wednesday, May 5 1999
Photo by David Flad
WHEN AN ACTOR PLAYING ADOLF HITLER OPENS A door and suddenly appears onstage in John Rafter Lee's WWII play, the audience gasps as if it had collectively been punched in the stomach. It's a small reminder of the Führer's undiminished capacity to scare us, for even though most of the Road Theater's viewers attending Hitler's Head probably were either alive during the war or born soon after, there's no denying the atavistic dread Hitler's face -- probably the most recognizable visage in history -- provokes in nearly everyone. And yet this very familiarity is a playwright's nightmare, since, with the passage of time, Hitler has moved from the acropolis of political villainy to the more morally ambiguous gallery of pop culture, placed somewhere between Frankenstein and W.C. Fields. How, then, to speak of his Third Reich without trivializing it or lecturing us?

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 Müller (Matt Kirkwood), who's been commissioned to create a head of Hitler (Paul Perri) long before the latter's accession to the chancellorship. (Müller actually produces many Adolf heads, even if sometimes it seems as though he's been working on the same Führerkopf for 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 Müller'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 Fürtwangler, 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 Brünnhilde-costumed Hermann Göring (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 Müller 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 Müller to sculpt his likeness, as well as appearances from Goebbels' (Loren Rubin) enigmatic mistress (Sile Bermingham).

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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 Müller. 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 Führer'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 Hürlimann 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 Müller except, until the very end apparently, that his other client happens to be a Jew. Finally, there is an embarrassingly confusing scene in which Müller 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.

This is too bad, because the Road Theater Company has really thrown the dice with this production. Not necessarily because the play's specific historical theme is edgy (Hitler was a bad man?), but simply because the ideas in Hitler's Head, however imperfectly formed, are ideas nevertheless, and ones which are drawing full houses in this North Hollywood venue.

The show also boasts an extraordinary set-design effort from Desma Murphy, whose detailed, drab loft discloses an authentic milieu that has a believably lived-in look to it and is not just someone's idea of how a bohemian's loft might appear. (Then again, I'm always a sucker for sets that feature simulated rainfall.) Likewise, Mary Jane Miller's highly specific period costumes are a whimsical weave of purpose and hyperbole that unmistakably announce each change of mood. I only wish the cast were up to matching the verisimilitude of the show's design elements, but alas, none of the actors truly inhabits their characters, assuming instead the all-too-familiar theatrical robotics of moving about a stage and repeating lines without self-reflective pauses. This might be put down to the production's having not one but two directors, Taylor Gilbert and Ken Sawyer; here, at least, more is not necessarily better, and the ensemble seems unaware of the difference between acting and pretending.

In the end we are mostly left wondering who should have made the jokey moments funnier and the weightier moments more focused -- the playwright or the directors? And why, despite Lee's intentions, does this play wind up ponderous when he aimed to be light, sermonizing when he tried to be suggestive? As the Napoleon and Marx of our century, and the author of its boldest crimes, Adolf Hitler demands better scrutiny. The movement and the casualties he created, from the Nazi Party to the Anton Müllers, must be analyzed with more sophisticated tools than this play offers if we are to understand their legacy -- a legacy that can be felt today, from desecrated graves and bombed embassies to the Führer's birthday being chosen by high school terrorists as their fateful D-day.

At the ROAD THEATER, 5108 Lankershim Blvd.,
North Hollywood | Through June 6

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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