THEATER REVIEW: "Amazons and Their Men”

Leni Riefenstahl was an artistic polymath -- actress, dancer, photographer, screenwriter, producer and film director -- but she is best known as the maker of “Triumph of the Will,” a propaganda film about a Nazi rally in Nuremberg made in 1934 at the behest (and with the financing) of her friend Adolf Hitler. Though it won awards (as did a succeeding two-parter, “Olympia,” about the 1936 Berlin Olympics), Riefenstahl suffered from this association after the war.

Playwright Jordan Harrison (nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2015) takes Riefenstahl as inspiration and imagines a film director (called simply The Frau) determined to make a beautiful, romantic film of her own despite the ugly war brewing just outside the studio. It will be a film version of Heinrich von Kleist’s play “Penthesilea,” about the Amazon queen who loves and then fights Achilles. (Riefenstahl did in fact plan such a film and plotted out 34 scenes, but Hitler’s invasion of Poland intervened and the film was never made.)

The Frau herself (Kerry McCue) will play Penthesilea, the last Amazon queen. She’s hired The Man (John DeCarlo), a Jew, to play Achilles, and her sister The Extra (Tiffany Tang) to play several roles.

One other character, The Boy (Jewels Weinberg), starts out as a telegram delivery boy, bringing messages from Nazi headquarters (presumably Hitler himself, or possibly the Minister of Propaganda), who might prove troublesome for the Frau’s film project. But soon she hires the messenger – a Romanian gypsy – to play Achilles’ friend Patroclus for the film. The Boy, already on the Nazi extermination list, turns out to be a homosexual to boot (which proves a romantic boon for The Man).

The play jumps back and forth from the characters’ onscreen antics (largely of the exaggerated, ’30s variety) to the sound stage just this side of that unpleasant reality outside. This presents technical difficulties deftly handled by lighting designer Curtis Mueller and projections designer Tara Knight. Ron Logan’s set is anonymous enough to serve as several locations, and Kate Bishop’s costumes are downright cinematic.

Tang’s Extra is the most interesting character (and she plays it to the hilt), serving as narrator and speaking for all those unsung non-stars on and offscreen who do their jobs without fanfare or hefty paychecks. “The extra has to be nondescript,” she says. “An extra has a whole arsenal of nondescription at her disposal.” Her talent, she tells us, is “dying inconspicuously.”

McCue is the perfect monomaniacal diva, replete in a long, slinky gold dress with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, shouting “Cut!” and imperiously ordering her actors and crew around. But you have to admire her nerve, hiring both a Jew and a gypsy in this environment. DeCarlo plays the nuances of the Man and Achilles well, and Weinberg’s opportunistic Boy is fun to watch.

Can art truly be divorced from politics when politics is funding it? Should it be? These are two of the questions under consideration, along with gender-based power dynamics. These are serious questions; one problem with this play is that the script is so cleverly written – and many of the lines delivered so quickly – that at least this audience member wished for a bit more time to appreciate both the cleverness of the words and the darkness of the theme. I’d suggest reading the script beforehand.

Harrison is new to me and, based on this play, is certainly a talent to watch. He has a knack for clever dialogue and juxtaposing comedy with serious concerns.

Kudos to Matt Morrow, Diversionary’s new artistic director, for choosing this play and doing it so well.

The details

"Amazons And Their Men” plays through October 4, 2015 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard.

Thursday at 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm

Tickets: (619) 220-0097 or www.diversionary.org

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.