By Tania Fisher
The SoHo Playhouse doesn’t disappoint with audiences being able to continually rely on good quality productions and being thoroughly entertained. Henry Naylor’s award winning “Games” is now playing as part of their Fringe Encore Series.
We are taken back in time and to a particular spot in sporting history with the familiar backdrop of the approaching Second World War. It’s the captivating true story of fencing extraordinaire Helene Mayer, and track and field athlete Gretel Bergmann, who competed as a high-jumper in the 1930s. Both girls were of Jewish ethnicity living in Germany when the integration of anti-Jewish laws severely threatened and ultimately changed both of their careers.
Helene Mayer (portrayed by Lindsay Ryan) has been called the greatest female fencer of all time, having won the German women’s foil championship at only 13 years of age. At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, she was the only German athlete of Jewish origin to win a medal, while her friends and relatives were still in Germany and in labor camps. Mayer had always shunned the limelight and refused interviews, citing that she “was a fencer” and not a spokesperson for any product or political opinion. It is always a risky undertaking playing a real person and with limited historical interviews to reference, Ryan showed in-depth empathy and great perception in her portrayal of Mayer.
Gretel Bergmann (played by Renita Lewis) was a top athlete four years younger than Mayer, who was at the time known in the media as the darling of the sporting world and nick-named “The Little Hey.” Bergmann was already an admirer of the famous fencer with her family keeping a statue of her on their mantelpiece. Bergmann became a champion in her own right but with the Nazis’ accession to power in 1933 she was expelled from her sporting club for being Jewish. She then moved to the United Kingdom winning British Championships there and vowed never to return to Germany. However, later, the German government, wanting to appear unbiased in its Olympic-team selections forced her to return to Germany under threats of reprisals to her family members. Bergmann obliged and was allowed to prepare for the 1936 Olympics, however, despite spending two years on the team and breaking the European record just two weeks before the opening, she was banned, via a letter citing “inadequate performance” which was a thinly veiled false statement to exclude her because of her Jewish heritage. In 1937 Bergmann left Germany again, this time for good. Talented actress Lewis showed immense sensitivity and intelligent choices in her portrayal of this fascinating real life character, bringing an unforced authenticity to the role.
Both Mayer and Bergmann unwillingly became heroines for their beloved Germany, and their beloved respective sports. Both were forced to fight the labels placed upon them and faced the backlash from their fellow countrymen about the choices they had very little power in making.
In addition to touching human and poignant anecdotes from both the girls’ histories, there are also resonating themes throughout of labels, identity, racism, and political extremism, all of which are still relatable in today’s political climate.
Playwright, Naylor, expertly handles explanatory dialogue giving it a stylized nuance and rhythm that keeps good pace and energy and remains entertaining and interesting from start to finish. As a non-sports person myself, I can honestly say I was riveted by every detail and found myself wanting to jump up and cheer for the athlete’s accomplishments in several moments throughout the play. Information is unraveled from the perspectives of the two characters allowing us to be moved by their heartbreak as well as wanting to fight right alongside them and wishing to buoy on their tenacity and will power.
Award winning Director, Darren Lee Cole handles the excellent script adeptly, allowing emotional space for his actors to clearly express depth and fullness to their characters and masterfully has you caught up in their personal lives and their personal struggles, all the while showing us real people with relatable emotions and reactions to an unjust and frightening time in history.
Jared Kirby as Fight Choreographer has done such an excellent job that he will have you believing the actors are highly trained athletes. The play was always visually stimulating and engaging. With a streamlined and simplistic set, and two actors portraying the athletes, the magic of theater reveals itself to bring you a captivating and moving experience.
Compelling and fascinating, “Games” is deserving of its own Olympic gold medal.
Location: SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, New York, NY 10013
Running time: 75 mins (no interval) thru November 24