Madhouse Theater Company’s Playing Leni: An Artist’s Dilemma

Robert DaPonte as The Soldier and Amanda Grove as Leni; photo by Paola Nogueras.

by Debra Miller
Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent

You’re offered support, acclaim, fame, and prestige as an artist, given a blank check, with everything at your disposal. But there’s just one catch: you’ll be working for the Nazis, to create propaganda for the Third Reich during World War II. Such was the dilemma of Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl.

How would you play it?

Madhouse founder John Stanton, who co-authored Playing Leni with David Robson, was fascinated by the question of “how far someone is willing to go for fame and success.” Did Riefenstahl truly believe in the Nazi cause she promoted in her films, or was she a mere opportunist, who let blind ambition triumph over moral conscience?

The new dark comedy is a fictionalized account of Riefenstahl’s capture, arrest, and transfer to a detention center by an American Allied soldier. In it, their journey offers Leni a compelling theme for a film, starring herself and her captor – her own story, which she composes, directs, rewrites, and edits along the way.

Playing Leni already won the Spark Showcase in 2010, when it debuted its first scene under the title Dysfictional Circumstances; it also numbered among my Top Picks in last year’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival, where a reading of the early script was presented. The current full-stage production, which runs through June 11, in the Adrienne Theatre Skybox, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, more than fulfills the promise of its previous incarnations; it is a well designed, witty, and thought-provoking hit for Madhouse.

Employing video projections as a backdrop, the two-person cast moves through Germany, and Leni’s self-edited recollections, doing take after retake to recount their own slanted versions of her affiliation with the Nazis. Robert DaPonte as The Soldier cements his status as one of Philadelphia’s finest young actors, equally adept at physical comedy and committed characterizations, at accents and impersonations. Amanda Grove as Leni faced the difficult task of following the brilliant Colleen Corcoran, who originated the role in Spark and the Fringe, but had to withdraw from the current production due to an injury. Grove did not disappoint. Under Seth Reichgott’s inspired direction, her Leni was powerful and commanding, comical and conflicted, but steadfastly unwilling “to shoulder the burden of other people’s crimes.”

Madhouse’s imaginative interpretation of Riefenstahl is remarkably even-handed, considering the resonant nature of the subject for gay and Jewish members of the cast and team—though it should resonate for everyone. The audience feels both sympathy and contempt for Leni, and recognizes that we could all be like her, depending on the circumstances. The play raises ethical issues without being preachy, allowing each of us to decide for ourselves if Riefenstahl was complicit or unknowing, a chameleon who could adapt to any situation, or a survivor who made the movies because she had no choice. And it manages all the while to be very, very funny.

In reality, the filmmaker was arrested in 1945 and detained for three years in various Allied facilities, but was never convicted of any crime. Nonetheless, she is inextricably bound to the Nazis, and as The Soldier tells her in the play, “Once you sell your soul, you can’t buy it back.” The verdict is still out on Leni Riefenstahl, but it’s a resounding victory for Playing Leni.

For more information and tickets, visit the website at www.madhousetheater.org.

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