Liz Jahren as "Frau Death"
The Clarence Brown Theatre's production of George Tabori's Mein Kampf is a virtual tour de force that is as demanding on its audience as it is on the actors. Written in 1987, Mein Kampf is a dark comedy that arose out of the pain and absurdity of the Holocaust. The play literally depicts the unlikely relationship between Shlomo Herzl, an impoverished but well-educated Jewish man who sells Bibles and copies of Fanny Hill in the streets, and the comparatively crude Adolf Hitler, who has arrived in an attempt to enroll in the art academy. The action takes place in a Viennese flophouse in the years preceding World War II.
A dim light reaches to the corners of the stage as a menorah is lit by the hand of God. Well, not by God, but by Lobkovitz, a former chef who is fond of having others call him God. If religion is the opiate of the masses, then so must laughter be, as Lobkovitz opens the play with a series of jokes to his friend in poverty, Shlomo Herzl. There is a certain timelessness to the dialogue between Herzl and Lobkovitz, one that seems to take place both before and after the atrocities of World War II. Herzl announces that he is writing a book, which we later learn is to be entitled Mein Kampf. This is the calm before the storm that occurs prior to the abrasive entrance of the young Hitler, who is presented as an obnoxious upstart fond of picking his nose. Lobkovitz asks the young man his name, and when Hitler informs him, Lobkovitz replies, "Funny. You don't look Jewish".
Herzl takes a keen interest in Hitler, and does his best to prepare him for his interview at the art academy. Hitler returns from the academy rejected and full of drink, among other things. It is here that Hitler's anti-Semitic leanings become most apparent, thus turning Herzl and Hitler into political and ideological enemies. Herzl, however, maintains his composure, upholding the biblical maxim, "I Love thy neighbor as thyself". Act III begins with the entrance of the lovely Gretchen, a wayward Christian girl enamored by the physical ugliness of Herzl. She appears to Herzl as a concrete epiphany who simultaneously soothes and troubles Herzl in her beauty. Hitler enters enraged at the notion of Herzl's corrupting and tainting the young girl with his "jewishness." Hitler's sexual inadequacy and perversion, a theme present throughout the play, also becomes apparent during this interlude.
The scene then shifts to Herzl lying on his bed only to be confronted by Lady Death, who says she has an appointment with Hitler. Herzl, who has somehow retained his tolerance for Hitler, believes that she has come to take Hitler's life and tries to stall her. During this interchange, Herzl inquires about death, a subject that troubles him greatly. Meanwhile, Hitler escapes and Lady Death explains to Herzl that she did not desire Hitler as a victim but as an agent of death. Act V begins in the midst of Hitler's rise to power. Hitler and a band of "Tyrolean Leather Freaks" come to burn Herzl's book because they assume it contains a derogatory portrayal of Hitler. Herzl, who has not written so much as an opening sentence, states that he has not written the book yet. The Nazis assume Hertzl is lying and begin to torture him. Lady Death saves Herzl, as it is not his time to die, but makes her alliance with Hitler known. The death march of Hitler and Death as they leave to conquer the world casts a gloomy foreshadowing on the end of the play, as Lobkovitz warns Herzl of the difficult times to come.
Tabori uses his satiric, ironic humor as a means of confronting the absurdity of the Holocaust. So if it seems that Baronowski's production runs the risk of going over-board at times, it is only in service to Tabori's theme. The purpose of the play is to force the audience to consider the reality of the events leading up to WWII, and it is essential that the production style echo the cataclysmic nature of those events, lest we forget our lamentable past. Moments of tension are undercut by moments of humor, setting up a pattern of climax and release. The jokes, such as the one about Hitler's ethnic heritage, are not so much offensive as they are meant to inspire thought. It is important that we keep laughing for in doing so, we do not allow Hitler the ultimate triumph he so longed for. Tabori dares to present Hitler as a pitiable creature, in an attempt to show us the Hitler in all of us. Herzl acts as both a mentor and an inspiration to Hitler. Indeed, it seems an unlikely premise for a comedy.
Baranowski's direction is marked by the installation of unconventional actions, which often leads to moments of true visionary brilliance. His images and allusions are clear, but even those that lean towards obscurity, such as the balancing of an egg between the mouths of Shlomo and Gretchen, have an undeniably visceral effect on the viewer. Baranowski's affinity for the elements of fire, water, earth, and air serve to heighten the stunning visual images, such as Lobkovitz's speaking from behind the burning bush, and the pouring of hot water from a standing position into a cup on the floor. Fire and water belong to God (Lobkovitz), as mortals explore the elements of wind and earth. Gretchen's entrance, which occurs through the opening of one of the Carousel theatre walls, is a truly remarkable use of space and is very much in keeping with the fantasy element in the play.
The set, designed by Baranowski and Stephen Dedman, is effective in creating an atmosphere of foreshadowing and tension, and it is no coincidence that the upturned beds of the Viennese flophouse evoke the image of the barbed wire and electrical fences of a concentration camp. The sound design is also intelligent, employing Mozart (who has an obvious connection to Vienna) and Richard Wagner, who was a renowned anti-Semite. And Bertold Brecht's influence on Tabori is most apparent when the trio of Lobkovitz, Herzl, and Hitler launch into an aria from Wagner's "Tannhauser".
Outstanding amongst the performances must be John Craven as Shlomo Herzl and Liz Jahren as Frau Death. Craven suggests an outer-piety, violent in its restraint in the face of intolerance. He was perhaps the only character whose inner life was as intriguing as his outer life, and the subtleties that arose as a result made his performance particularly memorable. Jahren's entrance, which is accompanied by Mozart's "Requiem", steals the show, as does her stunning portrayal of Lady Death. It would be safe to say that Jahren does not hit a single false note. Her portrayal of Lady Death was icy calm and chilling, befitting her stark white costume and make-up.
Baranowski has clearly coaxed a high-octane performance from Tony Cedano, who plays Hitler, but I must feel that the character is introduced at such a high pitch that there is scarcely anywhere for him to go once he has begun. Indeed, by the fifth act, Cedano has already exhausted his admittedly extensive range, which could not help but limit what should have been his most sinister scene, the metaphorical destruction of Shlomo Herzl. However, I must add that the effect of Cedano's high-pitched monotone, accompanied by shrill episodes of hysterical laughter, created a sense of true uneasiness and disquietude in the audience, which I suppose is an appropriate effect.
The Clarence Brown Theatre of Knoxville, Tennessee has made it a point in the last eight years or so of presenting its audiences with drama that is both bold and ambitious, and there are few theatres in America today willing to attempt something as daring as Mein Kampf. The Yale Repertory Theatre deemed it to be too controversial for their stage. In fact, the CBT's production is one of the first productions of the play in this country. But despite its controversial title and subject matter, Mein Kampf has played to sold out audiences, who seemed enthusiastic about and liberated by the confrontational aspects of the subject matter. This production warrants considerable attention and is truly a feather in the cap of all involved.
James M. Marvel