A Holocaust survivor uses puppets to heal in this arresting drama
From the start of The Puppetmaster of Lodz, it's obvious that something's wrong with Samuel Finkelbaum. He lives in the fourth-floor garret of a Berlin rooming house but refuses to open the door for anyone. Through the keyhole, he shouts at the concierge that he's on to her; he knows she's going to turn him over to the Nazis for a reward. It's 1950, she responds; the war's been over for five years. She can't fool him, he insists; she should leave the groceries by the door and leave; he will slide a check under the door later.
As Samuel, actor Marc Horwitz plays this opening scene perfectly. His eyes widen in growing paranoia, yet the edges of his mouth curl knowingly, as if he's the one who knows just what's going on. He dresses in the drab bachelor garb of a brown cardigan and gray slacks, yet he speaks tenderly and wisely to his wife curled up beneath a quilt. Even when Samuel pulls back the quilt to reveal that his "wife" is a full-sized puppet in a pale nightgown and thick brown wig, he never seems completely cracked.
It's this juxtaposition between his seeming madness and his clear intelligence that makes Samuel such a fascinating character and The Puppetmaster of Lodz such a compelling play. Horwitz and his director Marlyn Robinson are co-founders and co-directors of the Performance Workshop Theatre, and their previous productions of this play--1995 in Baltimore County and 2002 in Anne Arundel County--have become legendary in Maryland theater circles. This latest rendition at Theatre Project--employing three new supporting performers but the same impressive puppets and sets--lives up to that legend.
Written by veteran French actor Gilles Segal (who appeared in Topkapi, Enigma, and The Madwoman of Chaillot), the play ingeniously combines standard drama with puppet theater. Before the war, Samuel was a puppeteer in the Polish city of Lodz, and now in his tiny garret, he's writing and rehearsing his greatest opus: the story of a character named Samuel Finkelbaum in a Nazi concentration camp.
Segal's play doesn't work unless we believe that Samuel really is one of the top puppeteers in Europe, that that claim isn't one of his delusions. For if he isn't a great artist, he's just another crackpot we have no reason to care about. But if he is a true artist, if he's trying to heal his own wounds with that art, he becomes a fascinating figure. But we have to be convinced.
Horwitz proves a most persuasive puppeteer. Holding his puppet/wife Ruchele by the wrists and nape, he brings her to life. Soon she is snapping her head around when he hatches a new idea, shaking her shoulders in laughter at his jokes, washing the dishes over the sink and tenderly stroking her husband's cheek. A puppet of a small girl with golden hair and a pointed nose squirms and nestles in Samuel's arms--and then mischievously bites his nose. These puppets, created by Robert Smythe, are not just lifelike, but also quite handsome--as is Greggory Schraven's German Expressionist set.
While Samuel is rehearsing his show, the concierge (Katherine Lyons in dowdy house dresses) makes it her mission to liberate her tenant from his dream world. She brings up soldiers from the Russian and American armies of occupation to prove that the Nazis have been defeated, but Samuel dismisses them, saying that the Nazis could have dressed them up to lure him from his hiding place. A Jewish businessman (played, like the soldiers, by Mark Steckbeck) arrives, but has no better luck.
Horwitz implies, through sudden, brief stillnesses, that some small part of Samuel's mind doesn't subscribe to this dominant delusion. Somewhere in his brain, he knows that the war is over and his wife is absent, but he also knows that he needs isolation until he works through the terrible trauma of the concentration camp through his puppets. Then and only then will he be ready to rejoin the real world.
When the specific nature of that trauma is finally revealed, it is bearable only because it's acted out by puppets rather than real people. And when the puppets start talking back to Samuel on behalf of his brain's sliver of realism, he's willing to accept their conclusions and consolations as he never would from his visitors. And we in the audience are more willing, too, for we are seeing right in front of us how art, so often born in mirages and fantasies, can bring us to some kind of truth.
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