A Masterful PUPPETMASTER at Theatre Project
Theatre Project’s new production of The Puppetmaster of Lodz marks the third time since 1995 that actor Marc Horwitz, director Marlyn G. Robinson, and the Performance Workshop Theatre have collaborated on Gilles Segal’s 1989 play. I did not see either of the previous productions, so I cannot say whether Horwitz and Robinson have brought anything new to their work. What I can say is that the work currently on display at Theatre Project is very, very good.
Horwitz plays Samuel Finkelbaum, the eponymous puppeteer, who escapes from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp shortly before the surrender of Nazi Germany. Samuel makes his way to Berlin and finds refuge in a boarding house run by a sympathetic concierge. Locking himself in his tiny room, he spends his days carving puppets and rehearsing the show he plans to unveil once the war finally ends.
When the play begins five years have passed. The war is over but Samuel refuses to believe it. From time to time the concierge brings him proof in the form of Allied soldiers, who stand gamely outside his door as he assaults them with irrefutable logic. How can a man who burned the corpses of those who were led into gas chambers masquerading as showers believe anyone, let alone strangers peering at him through a keyhole? Let alone the God he was raised to serve?
These are well-traveled paths, to be sure, but Segal—assisted by Isabelle Sanche’s excellent translation—illuminates them with new light. The debates between Samuel and the Russian and American soldiers are fascinating—Segal and Sanche capture something essential about each nation without reducing the men to stereotypes, and the soldiers return the favor by not dismissing Samuel as a mere eccentric or crank. They want very much to help him and seem genuinely pained when they cannot.
An unfortunate plot twist late in Act 2 gives an alternative explanation for the soldiers’ behavior, while simultaneously casting doubt on Samuel’s history. I say unfortunate because, for me at least, the twist confuses the play rather than expands it. Segal himself seems to lose interest—the crucial character disappears awkwardly offstage, never to return, and the play proceeds with its conclusion almost as though the preceding scene had not happened. The lost momentum from this detour, coming so close to the end, damages the play nearly beyond repair.
That it does not is a testament to the production’s power, and especially to the mesmerizing performance at its core. Horwitz prepared for the role by training with master puppeteer Robert Smythe, founder and former artistic director of Philadelphia’s Mum Puppettheatre (which closed last spring after 23 years), and watching him give life and personality to each of the production’s two-dozen puppets (which Smythe also created) is a treat rarely experienced in “serious” drama. Every delicate gesture, every extravagant flourish counterbalances the burden of survival, which when the play begins has grown increasingly unbearable. Samuel walked away from the charnel house, and the world he found has no place left for him—all that remains is what he can build out of paper and string.
There is no drop-off in the supporting roles, starting with Katherine Lyons as the concierge. The responsibility she feels toward Samuel—and the connection that Lyons forges with Horwitz—is all the more touching considering the locked door that separates them. Mark Steckbeck plays the aforementioned soldiers, as well as an elderly Jewish man and a German doctor, and transitions seamlessly between accents. (Horwitz does a fine job as the production’s voice and dialect coach.) Rounding out the cast is Michael Joseph Donlan, whose mannered turn as a fellow survivor of Birkenau is quietly affecting.
Greggory S. Schraven’s realistic set manages to appear cramped without sacrificing the space required for Samuel’s flights of fancy. Costumer Sara Mathes achieves a similar effect—by donning a faded jacket or draping a tablecloth over his head, the impoverished Samuel transforms himself time and again. Lighting designer Brian Engel contributes to the show’s most chilling effect, as puppets hanging in silhouette morph into corpses. Sound designer Richard McCready blends offstage commotion into the scenes without overwhelming them.
The play’s program includes an excerpt from a poem by Baltimore’s Mary Azrael:
From here, enter history
like a climber through woods
who steps out suddenly
onto a ledge, and feels
how far a person could fall
with nothing to catch and hold us,
with no-one to watch us
speeding away …
We in the audience who watch Samuel’s heroic struggle can only hope, by play’s end, he has indeed found someone to stay his fall.
The Puppetmaster of Lodz is playing at Theatre Project, located at 45 W. Preston Street in Baltimore, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM, through October 25th. Tickets are $10–$20. For more information, visit www.theatreproject.org or call 410-752-8558.
From This Author Brent Englar