by Marilyn Lester
Theater of the absurd lives impressively in the 1987 George Tabori work, Mein Kampf, a rippingly black satire of young Adolf Hitler and his mentoring by a Jewish bookseller. As mounted by Director Manfred Bormann for Theater for the New City, Mein Kampf is a timely piece for difficult times. It’s a successful production with genuinely amusing, and even funny, moments. Yet, at the same time, it’s grotesque – it’s meant to be. For those interested in meaningful theater, this production is for you.
Tabori was a Jewish playwright, director and writer who fled the Nazi regime in 1935 and who lost relatives (including his father) in “The Final Solution” death camps. His work often addressed the refugee experience and the madness of war. Mein Kampf is rife with puns, wordplay, innuendo, wit and quips, turning history on its head with plenty of irony. Mein Kampf is both nonsensical and penetrating in its attempt to parse the horrible history of Hitler. Yet, how can a Hitler be explained? For that matter, how can a Hitler even be portrayed? Even quite serious attempts sooner or later fall into absurdity. Take, for example, the endless “Hitler Rants” parodies based on scenes from the 2004 film Downfall (Der Untergang).
Mein Kampf is set prior to the First World War in a cheap men’s boarding house in Vienna, where Adolf Hitler has come to study art. He’s buffoonish, naive and bewildered by his two Jewish roommates, Herzl (Jon Freda), a clever bookseller and Lobkowitz (G.W. Reed), a former chef who prefers to think of himself in the role of God. In an opening sequence of dialog, before Hitler’s arrival, the essence of “Jewishness” is neatly laid out, with repartee, humor and discourse worthy of a rabbinical schul. Enter Hitler, clueless, a comic character and ironic reflection of Jewishness and Jewish humor. Without the burden of history, this Hitler might even be a character worthy of our sympathy. Eventually, Lobkowitz departs, leaving Herzl, who is working on his memoir, entitled “My Struggle” (“Mein Kampf”) to attend to the young Hitler. Herein is another profound irony, for the work whose title Hitler eventually co-opts for his own story, is a work of Jewishness, a personal account of a man’s life and a symbolic account of the history of the Jewish people.
Freda as the clever Herzl mines the depths of his character’s Jewishness with subtlety, ably hitting a range of emotional notes. At Herzl’s core is his compassion, a trait that’s both his blessing and his curse. As the clueless Hitler, Omri Kadim gives young Adolf dimension, remarkably avoiding the pitfall of caricature. As Herzl “mothers” Hitler with care and even affection, perhaps believing Hitler is himself a Jew; he and Lobkowitz have alredy noted the number of Jewish Hitlers in the Vienna phone directory. As Herzl continues to mentor his charge, he unwittingly begins to lay the groundwork for what will become a transformation into evil. He suggesting innocently at one point that Hitler should “go into politics.” Mysteriously at the end of act one, Herzl’s underage yet chaste goyishe girlfriend, Gretchen, played disarmingly by Andrea Lynn Green, comes to visit and presents the bookseller with a pet chicken for his company and comfort. Like Chekov’s gun, if there is a chicken on the table, it has to be used.
Where the lengthy act one sometimes sagged under the weight of talkiness, the shorter act two moved quickly, taking a turn into absurdist horror. In the inevitable turn-around, Hitler is evolving into the monster we have come to know and despise, with the still compassionate Herzl enduring abuse with a parent’s forgiveness. Into this strange dynamic walks Frau Death, a world-weary sophisticate in black, played by Cordis Heard. Unfortunately, Heard plays Death on one note, missing an opportunity to chew the scenery with the role of a lifetime. Herzl, thinking Death has come to take Hitler, helps him escape, only to find out later that Death’s aim is to partner with him in the execution of the greatest criminality and mass extermination in history. It’s a chilling scene as is the later entrance of Hitler and his henchman Himmlisch (a dastardly Jeff Burchfield), backed up by three menacing thugs (Robert Eigen, David Knowle and Derrick Peterson). With the gentile Gretchen, who has been duped by Hitler to his cause, Herzl witnesses the horrific butchering of his pet by Himmlisch.
Left alone with a repentant Gretchen, the two pray a kaddish over the corpse of the dismembered chicken. It’s at this moment that Lobkowitz returns as God. What Lobkowitz has known all along is that compassion for anti-semites can only come to no good for Jews, and that inevitably, Herzl would become the first victim of Hitler’s hatred. In an inexplicable world where no good deed goes unpunished and the human condition can never be explained by logic, what is there left to do but pray.
The set, a bleak and seen-better-days dormitory room, is by Matthew Crane. Original music is by Stanley Walden, with lighting by Alexander Bartenieff, sound by Cliff Hahn, and costumes by Sarah Zinn. Omri Kadim also served as Fight Director.
(Note: Mein Kampf plays in repertory with Tabori’s Jubilee)
Two by Tabori: Mein Kampf, May 4, 5, and May 16 to 19 at 8 PM, May 6 at 3 PM and 8 PM, and May 14 at 3 PM