Amazons and Their Men
nytheatre.com review by Robin Rothstein
January 5, 2008
It is rare to see a play where all aspects of the production synchronize perfectly. Theatre is such a collaborative, human effort it is almost always inevitable that something will fall short. However, the only aspect that falls short in the thought-provoking and highly entertaining, Amazons and Their Men by Jordan Harrison is the breezy 70-minute running-time, leaving you wanting more of what this innovative playwright has to offer.
Amazons and Their Men is, among other things, a quirky examination of the challenges of artistic integrity and living truthfully in the face of persecution. Inspired by the life and work of controversial German actress and Third Reich-friendly film director Leni Riefenstahl, the play imagines, in a heightened way, the inner life of a woman who is haunted by the kinds of conflicts and contradictions that Riefenstahl may have lived. Mostly set in early-1930's Germany, a time when individual identity was well on its way to being quashed, Amazons and Their Men centers on a diva of the German screen called The Frau who has defiantly rejected the Minister of Culture's pushy offers of funding for continuing to make films of government rallies. The Frau wants to create films on her own terms now, no matter how little money she has to make them. She wants to only make beautiful films about beautiful people, films in which she is always the star and always the most beautiful of all.
Before being introduced to The Frau, we first meet a young woman identified as The Extra, who tells us that what we are about to see is footage from an old movie that ended up on the cutting room floor, and that it is within these discarded scraps where truth begins and where everyone has a story, even The Extras of the world. Enter The Frau in the midst of directing and starring in a big B-like film (performed in hilarious over-the-top fashion by the small, talented ensemble) where she plays Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, opposite an amorous Achilles.
The role of Achilles is played by a character called The Man, a handsome, muscular Jew from the ghetto, who The Frau has discovered and hired to be in the film. She sees The Man as beautiful, but with imperfections, and so is confident he won't steal focus from her. The Frau, played with no-holds-barred grandiosity by Rebecca Wisocky, is a complicated woman. Part Miranda Priestly, part Oscar Schindler, she bites the heads off her actors one minute, while protecting them the next. The Frau's desire to be viewed as beautiful mixes with her pathological jealous side, creating a concoction that ultimately turns her into the Führer of her celluloid fantasy world.
The cast of Amazons and Their Men is an ideal quartet. Wisocky is as funny as she is fierce, and knows exactly how and when to deliver a line or look with punch, often evoking big guffaws. Brian Sgambati plays The Man with a likable blend of virility and sensitivity. Gio Perez as The Boy, a destitute, sweet-faced messenger of Romanian descent who is also hired for the film, is a tender foil for the imperious Frau, and Heidi Schreck plays the victimized role of The Extra with a nice balance of compassion, comedy and inner strength.
Harrison has created a unique world of devastating beauty and humor here in a highly theatrical, accessible play. His non-traditional structure is tight as a drum and his use of narration throughout works well in bringing out deeper meaning, as opposed to being expository. His dialogue is focused and the poetry and economy of his language work in tandem to make observations that momentarily linger as they move from head to heart. At one point The Extra explains to The Man why The Frau uses her over and over to die in her films. "I have a talent for dying inconspicuously," she says. The Man pauses briefly, then replies, "That isn't a talent I aspire to," a devastating reminder that for a man like him, real death in the real world is biting at his heels.
Amazons and Their Men is directed with tremendous care and intelligence by Ken Rus Schmoll, who completely gets Harrison's writing and squeezes out every possible nuance from the play and the actors. His staging is also imaginative, making powerful use of the playing area's depth and scattered pillars. Sue Rees's clever rolling platform and projections, Garin Marschall's delicate lighting, and Leah Gelpe's subtle sound design all work together to enhance the play even more, and Kirche Leigh Zeile's sensible, specific costumes help to add layers for the actors of the inner kind, as well as the outer. Kudos must also be given to the Clubbed Thumb producing team, who have put together and overseen a cadre of talented artists, resulting in an experience that doesn't seem as if it could be improved upon anywhere else. The run of Amazons and Their Men is short, so be sure to fly like Hermes down to the Ohio Theater in Soho to see this beautiful work before it permanently fades to black.