nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
October 29, 2006
In Suzanne Glass's The Milliner, the disparity between how a man sees himself and how the world sees him shatters the title character. Beautifully produced by the Director's Company, The Milliner is an exploration of how a man can play an active part in his own destruction. Wolfgang, the title character, played with sensitivity by Michel Gill, is a secular Jew who purports to be entirely separate from his Jewish ancestry.
He has a staggering ability to deny all distractions and continue in his love for Germany, despite being Jewish in 1930s Berlin. He sees being a German (specifically a Berliner) as both his nationality and the core of his identity. Music, culture, style, and cosmopolitan lifestyle are things he sees as fundamental to his true self; and he sees that self as being personified by Berlin. When forced by World War II to relocate to London, he pines as Young Werther pined for Lotte, ignoring his wife and unable to connect to his art. Everything is on hold until he can return to the place that he loves so deeply. When he finally does return to a destroyed Berlin, there are appalling results for himself and another character. Wolfgang's idealistic sensibility steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the anti-Semitism around him or that it could possibly directly affect him.
It is a disturbing premise with potential that is stymied by the play's incomplete construction. The Milliner uses its entire first act to catalog what went into the making of Wolfgang's character. These establishing scenes don't serve as anything more than a collage of character development for Wolfgang, and do not further the play in any significant way. Only two characters in the first act have their own development and make a difference to the story, Claudia (unapologetically and finely played by Caralyn Kozlowski), and Frau Handel (Donna Davis in an economical but perceptive portrayal). Claudia is a blatantly Aryan beauty, cabaret singer, and hat aficionado who in Act Two returns as the personification of the Berlin which Wolfgang loves so unreservedly. Frau Handel, in a wonderful instance of focused and compact character writing, conveys the pre- and postwar experience of a Berliner. Yet other characters, such as his mother, could be cut entirely or are purely a device with no individual arc. Amalia, Wolfgang's artist wife, has scenes that only further define Wolfgang while she remains utterly obscure. This costs her final scene any impact as I had no idea of what she has lost or why I should care.
The play actually begins in Act Two with Wolfgang's return to postwar Berlin. The disillusionment of the other characters collides with Wolfgang's continued elegiac response to Berlin. The relationships created within this world of denial have a perverse wrongness that leads unrelentingly to an unexpected, violent end (disturbingly well choreographed by Rick Sordelet). There are moments within this act, such as his encounters with Germans who made it through the war, which deserve more exploration than the play gives them. Their experiences as Berliners subject to the rise and fall could provide even more interesting contrasts and challenges to Wolfgang's perceptions.
Even with its flaws, this is a gorgeous production. Throughout The Milliner the items that fill Wolfgang's soul are manifest. Thoughtful scenic design (Todd Edward Ivins) and artful costuming (Gregory Gale) support two countries and several timeframes faultlessly. Without distressing the set, the devastation of Berlin is conveyed with skilled projection design (Brian H. Kim) that, in conjunction with Jeff Nellis's lights, creates a rather cinematic, interesting travel transition. There are period music and classical pieces, creating a beautiful sense of place (musical direction, Warren Willis—interestingly, either Willis or Glass choose to include songs by the very anti-Nazi singer Marlene Dietrich, and in keeping with Wolfgang's modus operandi, that is not commented upon). Fittingly, a series of hats created by Lynne Mackey adorn the shop and suspend throughout in a symphony of styles. They remind us that dreams, shields, and illusions may sedate the senses with prettiness, but that anywhere you hang your hat is not always home.