A Fascinating Approach to A Mesmerizing Woman
By Myra Chanin
As Michelangelo proved when he transformed a massive but flawed slab of Carrara marble, previously rejected by two other sculptors, into his immortal vision of the teenaged pre-King David and his slingshot, the most crucial elements in the creation of art are unfettered talent and imagination, both abundant when there ain’t much cash available to spend for any other support.
Proof of this proposition is evident in Off-Off Broadway’s Dietrich Rides Again, an expressionistic, appropriately episodic, musical biography of Marlene Dietrich, the star who initially epitomized the Weimar Republic’s bravura style while still retaining her knack for self-reinvention.
Dietrich Rides Again is primarily the work of two imaginative artists, director Oliver Conant and star Justyna Kostek, who in addition share the creation of the script for the play as well as the appropriately minimalist but hardly haphazard set design. Three wooden steps, an Art Deco dressing table, a tall, translucent folding screen, an azure blue satin shmatta-covered loveseat scattered across the stage become the background for a variety of scenes. Then there’s the ordinary upright piano which in response to the demands made by Musical Director Jono Mainelli’s fingers, sounds as flamboyantly bold as the Steinway Grand Piano that Sergei Rachmaninoff played at Carnegie Hall.
Marlene Dietrich was destined for glory. Her initial desire to be a concert violinist was scotched when she injured her wrist playing a complicated Bach composition, but aware of her need to contribute to the support of her family in an inflation ridden post-WWI Germany, she became the protégé of the great avant-guard director/theater impresario Max Reinhart, which led her through leading roles in German silent films to international stardom at age 30 in 1929, just when Hitler was rising to power. Her wanton performance as the sultry-voiced Kabaret singer Lola-Lola in director Josef von Sternberg’s screen gem, The Blue Angel, turned the film into the first truly successful talkie. Lola-Lola led Marlene to a Hollywood film contact which allowed her and Von Sternberg, who was Jewish and thus no longer permitted to work in the German film industry, to make six more films together.
Dietrich used the considerable money she was paid in Hollywood to help her fellow German film colleagues – technicians, actors, composers, writers – get out of Nazi Germany. In addition, once America entered the war, Dietrich joined the US Army and performed for Allied troops on or near the front lines, a betrayal for which the Germans never forgave her.
In the 1960’s Dietrich left film work to return to the stage with a one woman show which featured tunes she’d made famous including two composed by her Berlin buddy, Friedrich Hollander: “Falling in Love Again” from The Blue Angel and “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have” from Destry Rides Again in which she co-starred with Jimmy Stewart. She also semi-sang Pete Seeger’s anti-war anthem, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” in her distinctive sultry tones. Although she stayed married to the same man for her entire life, she employed her sexual fluidity via affairs with both men and women. Alas, she died almost penniless but not homeless in a luxurious Parisian apartment provided for her by the French Government who also awarded her the Legion d’Honneur for her participation in the defense of France during World War II.
Dietrich’s fearless history deserves an audacious reiteration, and in Dietrich Rides Again, Conant and Kostek reward her with exactly that. The show is short but dense and consists of a dramatic series of episodes. The thirty-minute first act deals with Dietrich’s early years and the slightly longer second act covers her initially thrilling but ultimately sad finale. Between scenes Kostek dashes behind the translucent screen and manages some whirlwind costume changes, only possible thanks to Derek Nye Lockwood’s brilliant concepts. He deserves a Legion d’Honneur for the witty and clever way he turns a black satin slip, a black tulle shift, a hat, a trench coat, and a sleezy black robe into perfect renderings of layered outfits Marlene must have considered de rigeuer in Berlin in 1930. Kostek looks like the young Dietrich and displays her impression of Dietrich rather than imitate her.
Each episode also features a tune that defined Dietrich’s incandescent stardom, and includes hits by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, “Mother Can You Forgive Me?” for which Marlene herself contributed lyrics and the song popular with both Allied and Axis soldiers: “Lili Marlene,” about a girl who waited under the lamplight. Choreography is crafted by Madeline Jaye.
Because Kostek studied at Copenhagen’s Commedia and Drama School before establishing Atelier Teatral in Denmark, a successful experimental theater company, she adds curiously comic, impish touches to her passionate interpretation. Her performance was greatly enjoyed by the audience who waited to meet and greet Justyna Kostek and Oliver Conant who both welcomed audience members’ comments. This production made me curious enough about Dietrich to order her biography.
Just remember Dietrich Rides Again is a work in progress. I would have liked to know a bit more about her husband and her friendships with stars with whom she worked, specifically Orson Welles for whom she became the Madam of a Mexican whore house. Also, I think she needs a second wig, more flowing blonde wig for the more mature Dietrich.
Dietrich Rides Again will play through Sunday, September 17 at the Medicine Show Theater, 549 West 52nd Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues.