The Imaginary, All-True Leni Riefenstahl Show
nytheatre.com review by Paul Hagen
August 15, 2004
The life story of Leni Riefenstahl is a fascinating one, from her early career as a dancer to her controversial work as a director (her film Triumph of Will is often accused of being Nazi propaganda). Jen Ryan’s The Imaginary, All-True Leni Riefenstahl Show is at its best when exploring this material. Scenes in which Leni encounters Nazi big boys Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels or Hollywood greats like Marlene Dietrich and Clark Gable are particularly intriguing.
The problem is that there’s so much that has little to do with Leni’s life. Much of the show’s “humor” relies on slapstick, anachronistic pop culture references and overenthusiastic “making out.” The humor that’s more specific to the material, in particular an appearance by a stuffed animal in the role of Hitler, is much funnier.
Ryan has also chosen to make her struggle to write the play part of the play. It serves as yet another distraction from the life of Leni. Ryan, the character, faces no particularly grim struggles, just people who are vaguely opposed to Naziism wondering, “Why would you want to write a show about her?” These questions prompt passionate answers from Ryan about how great Leni was and how she wasn’t a Nazi. The parts of the show that actually tell the story of Riefenstahl’s life have already accomplished this; so welcome to redundancy.
Playwright Ryan also acts, portraying Leni as a sort of perpetually optimistic ingenue. Rik Sansone plays a dizzying array of characters Leni encounters, and, to his credit, very rarely looks dizzy from the effort. The same cannot be said for director Franz Liebkind, who all too often lets this production spin out of control—at times sacrificing clarity to blend scenes together, at other times leaving the audience sitting in the dark, listening to the actors struggle and curse their way through difficult costume changes. Visual designer Brendan Roche has designed an impressive series of vintage photo projections as a backdrop, although sometimes they serve as an interesting counterpoint while at others they simply seem to be killing time.
At the performance I saw, after a frantic curtain call, Ryan exhorted the audience to tell their friends to see “that funny show about the Nazis.” A great many more audience members would be telling their friends to come see this show if it wasn’t trying so hard to be a funny show about Nazis, but instead a really solid show about the life of Leni Riefenstahl.