Monday, Oct. 3, 2011

Hitler is a Bad Roommate

Carte Blanche’s MEIN KAMPF

By Russ Bickerstaff
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George Tabori’s Mein Kampf could easily have been very, very bad. A comedy about Hitler could go in a number of awful and shaloow directions. It’s a relief to know that the comedy about a young, pre-Nazi Hitler is actually really funny. Tabori’s irreverent swipe at one of the 20th century’s greatest villains manages to be funny in both a silly, superficial way and in funny (and, well, kind of tragic…) on a much deeper level that’s only there if you really want to spend time thinking about it. As a result, it works as both a bizarre, offbeat sitcom AND a deep allegory on the nature of love, intolerance and the origins of human misery. Now through the 9th, Carte Blanche Studios offers a deeply enjoyable staging of the rarely-produced comedy.

Jordan Gwiazowski is strikingly charming in the role of Shlomo—an aging Jewish gentleman struggling to write a book about his life, but incapable of getting far enough into the work to actually write anything down. His long-suffering friend Lobkowitz (charmingly played by Christopher Weis) playfully claims to be god. The two are having a conversation when Hitler shows-up. It’s only a good five to ten minutes into his arrival that either of the other men even seem to notice him.

The man originally cast to play Hitler dropped-out relatively far into rehearsals, so director Jimmy Dragolovich ended up taking the role. His is a fun, comic performance. A man who seems to prefer being offstage actually does a really good job onstage. Hitler has come to room with the other two gentleman as he interviews be accepted into art school.

On the surface level, the comedy that ensues feels kind of like an offbeat sitcom. In the role of Hitler, Dragolovich reminds me of Rik Mayall in The Young Ones. (I realize this is probably a pretty obscure reference, but it really shouldn’t be. That was a brilliant show and Dragovich’s performance here sparklingly echoes Mayall’s character in it.) Dragolovich manages a performance of an infantile, emotionally stunted man with the right comic shades to make us actually feel kind of sorry for the guy even after an unfortunate hair styling  and mustache trim make him look  that much more like the iconic image of evil everyone remembers.

As a sitcom, Mein Kmapf plays out remarkably well with only occasional twinges of physical comedy that don’t quite work. The novelty of seeing the face of 20th century evil as an annoying roommate never quite gets old . . . and the comic rapport between Gwiazdoski and Dragolovich is actually a lot of fun to watch.

When Hitler’s not around, Mein Kampf toys with the deeper elements of the comedy. Gwiazdowski puts brings a suitably exhausted intellectual presence o the stage as an author struggling with himself and his passions finds himself smitten with a charming girl far younger than he (played by a blindingly sunny and innocent Gloria Loeding.) 

 

The story progresses to turn the awkward kid into the tragically awkward dictator destined for infamy. The script manages a balance between slapstick comedy and deep, deep tragedy. Not all of this makes it to the stage quite as deftly as it could in Carte Blanche’s staging. There are times when the ensemble seems ever so slightly out of synch with itself. This is to be expected with so sudden a shift in the male lead.

One of the more interesting choices made with this particular production comes in when Death appears. Jessi Miller plays death. She’s a very young actress in the role of the single most ominous entity imaginable. Her dialogue has a kind of ambiguity to it that could be staged quite a few different ways. Miller plays her as a wealthy, young socialite. Death has been personified in countless different ways over the years. Seeing her as a very, very attractive young woman in a 1930’s cocktail dress is kind of a new one on me. (Neil Gaiman’s little goth girl in Sandman comes close, but this is something different altogether.) It’s interesting, tough, because with her the lines come across as those of a young woman who doesn’t completely understand the effect she has on life itself. She’s a force of nature who is having so much fun doing what she does that she doesn’t really think about it all that much. It’s a really interesting vision of death . . . she’s that girl at the party everyone wants to talk to but no one wants to approach. Shlomo asks her what happens after death and she’s trying to cover-up for it, but we really get the impression that she has no idea. Because she doesn’t care . . .

George Tabori’s Mein Kampf has rarely been produced in America. Not hard to imagine why with a title like that. As a culture, we cherish our villains and demons every bit as much as our heroes and messiahs. There’s a real danger in putting either behind museum glass. If we refuse to make fun of our cultural villains, we are giving them a power over us that perpetuates such childishly simplistic notions as “good,” and “evil.”

Carte Blanche Studios’ production of George Tabori’s Mein Kampf runs through October 9th at Carte Blanche's space on 1024 South 5th Street. For ticket reservations, call 262-716-4689 or visit Carte Blanche online.

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