The Puppetmaster of Lodz
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 1, 2007
Is a war ever over? That's one of the questions that Gilles Segal's thought-provoking play The Puppetmaster of Lodz asks—one of many, but the one that seems to have stayed most with me. Finkelbaum, the title character of Segal's absurdist work, escaped from Birkenau in early 1945 and found refuge on the top floor of a Berlin apartment house. It is now five years later, and Finkelbaum has yet to leave the apartment; he's convinced that the war is still going on, and despite the earnest and often ingenious efforts of his careworn landlady, he won't be persuaded otherwise.
During the play, we get a glimpse of some of what Finkelbaum saw in the concentration camp, some of what he went through and goes through still. His is not merely a case of survivor's guilt: he's living the paradox that every thinking and feeling person must somehow navigate, balancing an unbearable sense of loss with an unaccountable instinct to go on.
Viewed from our perspective in 2007, with genocidal catastrophes in Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and so many other places proving that the lessons of the Holocaust remain unlearned, Finkelbaum's dilemma becomes even graver. Because the war never is over—and if one happens to seem to end, another quickly takes its place. How much must humanity be diminished before we understand?
Robert Zukerman, who portrays Finkelbaum in what is very nearly a one-man play, conveys the depths of this despair with exquisite eloquence. Sometimes it's just in the physical manifestation he gives to Segal's off-kilter protagonist, but more often it's with the aid of the more than two dozen extraordinary puppets (designed by the invaluable Ralph Lee) that he uses to re-create, intermittently throughout the play, the story of Finkelbaum's life. In a few of these moments of re-creation, something close to catharsis happens in the room. I'm loathe to give too much away, so suffice to say that our first encounters with those puppet characters who represent his deepest losses are the hardest to watch. With Lee and director Bruce Levitt, Zukerman has arrived at some arresting and indelible stage pictures to represent the pain that Finkelbaum feels and felt.
I will surprise you, then, when I tell you next that The Puppetmaster of Lodz is, these moments notwithstanding, often remarkably comic. Segal is a Romanian playwright who lives in France, as Ionesco was; and like the best works of Ionesco, this piece reaches dark and ineffably absurd heights as Finkelbaum strains to protect the order of his utterly irrational universe. The throughline of the play is that the landlady keeps bringing different "experts" to Finkelbaum's door—who converse with him from outside, for he never lets any of them in—each of whom presents evidence that the war has ended and each of whom Finkelbaum manages to refute. By the time the story really gets going, you get a sense that the landlady has been trying this gambit for years. But futility is only one of the important themes running through Puppetmaster.
The play takes an unforeseen turn near its end that almost derails it, in my view. But the final moments pack a significant wallop.
Levitt's realization of this difficult piece is thoughtful and insightful, played on a wondrous set by Roman Tatarowicz that cunningly hides surprise after surprise. Zukerman, on stage for the entire show, does exemplary work; so, too, do Daniel Damiano (admirably underplaying four different "guests"), Suzanne Toren (as the landlady), and Herbert Rubens (as the last witness the landlady brings to Finkelbaum's door).
On every level—artistic, emotional, and intellectual—there is much here to appreciate and ponder. In a playwright's note in the program, Segal says that at one time it felt like the Holocaust might have been an unrepeatable accident of history, but such is no longer the case. Which is why The Puppetmaster of Lodz, which conveys the consequences of such an "accident" with terrible and raw immediacy, so vitally demands to be seen.