The Puppetmaster of Lodz by Gilles Sègal, translated by Sara o’Connor. Directed by Brian Roff.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I would have gone mad a long time ago. Lord knows, I’ve tried with all my might."
First seen on June 23 of this year the dark melodrama "The Puppetmaster of Lodz" has returned for an autumn run at the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, the off-Broadway sized venue in the Berkshire Theatre Group’s collective of performing spaces. Some aspects of this new re-view were first made available to the public the next day. However, things have changed in this production and those elements are specifically commented upon within what appears below.
Madness and idiocy can go hand-in-hand in certain situations. One masks the other and in a neurotic and psychotic situation the switching between them can be confusing to both the onlooker and the person at the center of it all. This isn’t bi-polarism and it isn’t multiple personality disorder. This, as the playwright Gilles Sègal shows us in his play "The Puppet master of Lodz," is what can keep a man alive when death should have been his resolution a long time since.
Joby Earle; photo: Chris Rice
It is idiotic to ignore the reality of a major war being over and done with and its hellish, nightmarish campaign against a race of people, a religion, being in the past. Also, it is madness to create a world where puppets are people and people are the useless puppets of a society bent on humiliation and elimination. Finkelbaum, the main character in this play, travels the elliptical road described above. He has created and recreated his own world experience within the outrageous confines of his small living quarters in Berlin, post WWII.
His landlady, Mademoiselle The Concierge, cannot convince him that he is deluding himself. Based on her peculiar actions and her manipulative use of a man whose name might be Weissmann, Finkelbaum is quite right to ignore her attempts to draw him out of his room on the fourth floor of her decrepit house. Weissmann assumes his many roles in this scheme with a quiet resolution. Finkelbaum, locked away with only a keyhole to expose his antagonizers, is not fooled. He knows what he knows.
It isn’t until a man named Schwartzkopf, a friend from the concentration camp that Finkelbaum escaped from, comes calling that Finkelbaum even considers that his long held beliefs may be shattered by a new and different truth.
By now, I trust, you understand that this is not your normal summer stock fare. This is dark and dry-as-dust stuff, sometimes hard to take, sometimes hard to take your eyes off. This is a play that brings you to the depths and then brings you back up a rung or two from despair. Be prepared to be confused, angered, engaged, disgusted and thoroughly entranced by the modest journey undertaken by Finkelbaum and his lovely wife Rochele. Or something like that, anyway.
Joby Earle plays the nearly impossible part of Finkelbaum. What keeps the actor himself sane is a good and totally fair question. He must be engulfing himself in this role to play with the conviction and honesty that can been in his performance. How he can do that without rolling his marbles down a steep flight of old stairs I do not know. It is a truly remarkable performance, one that has grown remarkably cold in many ways since I first saw it in June. Where before there were rages at outrages now there is a more deliberate anger at the tricks played on him by the outside world. Where violence once seemed to boil there is now a cooler head controlling the man. His performance, more nuanced and controlled, seems to harbor deeper secrets and darker memories that may not come to, or even near, the surface.
Earle has help, but it is all from the mute and minimally concerned roommates who help him finish his play and his story. Where there is animation in this romance it is all on his part. Earle may be a brilliant actor, but there is such a sense of reality here in the surround that it will be hard to convince you that a madman, an idiot, is not playing the role of the Puppeteer.
As The Concierge, Tara Franklin has replaced Julia Gibson. Franklin is a wonderful actor in the right role and this is not one of those for her. Where Gibson waved her hands, a dishtowel, anything at all in her wonderfully nervous way that so defined the desperation this character feels, Franklin merely folds her arms across her abdomen. The character has escaped into the words and it was never the words that defined this most outrageous woman. Rather it is her complicity in a plot to resolve an uncomfortable situation in her home that makes her unique. Franklin should try this role on again in another thirty years.
Also recast is Weissmann; Matt R. Harrington has replaced Lee Sellars who turned his performance as The Concierge’s "partner in not-crime" into a true tour-de-force presentation of personality and portrayal. Harrington does a better job in his many-faceted performance than Franklin manages in hers. He unmasks himself nicely and then continues to confuse and confound me for a moment or two. I never understood his final appearance in the play and nothing Harrington brings into the mix resolves my confusion, but he does a nice job in this odd little role.
As the old friend, Schwartzkopf, Jesse Hinson, playing against type, turns in the one truly sensitive and dangerous performance of the night. In his subtle portrayal of the friend he makes us wonder if madness, if idiocy, can be contagious. Although a highly ridiculous premise, Hinson almost makes it happen and so almost makes us believe it is possible. His humane, gentle performance left me wondering, yet again, who’s out there waiting in the dark to haunt me into a new and different reality. This is a performance you just have to see to believe.
Under the direction of Brian Roff Earle and Hinson own this play and the play is a hard one, even a difficult one to like. It holds too many dark messages and reportedly it took Sègal a long time to write the play. Roff uses every inch of Jason Simms excellent set with its outside hallway and staircase matching the drab interior of Finkelbaum’s apartment. Antonia Ford-Roberts has created costumes for this company that complete the picture of each of them although Franklin’s should have been redesigned for her. Japhy Weideman’s lighting design is subtle and clear at the same time. Every picture created is done so with that special clarity that more shows could use. Emily DeCola’s puppets are odd, to say the least, and perfect for this play.
If this play clicks with the Berkshire audience that could mark the start of a very new trend. Our usual summer fare may become obsolete as each company vies for a winning combination of plays that preach, reek of importance and/or challenge their audiences for an entire season. I doubt that high levels of intellectual theatre and political tribulation will ultimately win the day, but this play certainly separates the wheat from the chaff and sets a new standard for our regional companies to aspire to as they present their new seasons where nothing will top this play for sheer audacity, complete contrivance and devastating emotionalism. They’ll also have to go far to compete with this darkness.
The Puppetmaster of Lodz plays at the Unicorn Theatre at 83 East Main Street (Route 7) in Stockbridge, MA on the main campus of the Berkshire Theatre Group through October 7. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-298-5576.