The play now being presented by the Berkshire Theatre Group, “The Puppetmaster of Lodz,” will stay with you a long time after you have left the theater — and not in a good way. It tells the story of a man caught up in a gruesome and violent period in the patchwork of our human history.
The man, Samuel Finkelbaum (Joby Earle), has escaped a Nazi death camp and is now hiding in an apartment in Berlin. It is 1950 but he will not be convinced that the war has been over for five years. His landlady, “The Concierge” (Tara Franklin), spars with him, attempting to assure him that he is now safe.
‘The Puppetmaster of Lodz’
WHERE: Berkshire Theatre Group, 6 East St., Stockbridge, Mass.
WHEN: Through Oct. 7
HOW MUCH: $45
MORE INFO: 413-997-4444, www.berkshiregroup.org
She brings in a Russian soldier, an American and a Jewish lawyer, all played by Matt R. Harrington, to say that they could not be on the streets of Berlin if the Nazi regime was still in power, but Finkelbaum finds logical arguments to dispute their claims.
He has created an imaginary world for himself inside that apartment and he is unwilling and, one discovers, unable to relinquish it. He has created a puppet to represent his wife, Rachael, who is pregnant with their first child. He talks to her, asks her advice on a show he is putting together, and dotes on her. He has also created tiny versions of fellow prisoners who have fallen, and named each one. And therein lies the many themes the play has to offer: themes of isolation, paranoia, control of one’s existence and, most importantly, survival through artistic expression.
In truth, artistic expression was widespread, if illicit, in the Nazi camps. Prisoners produced, performed and patronized plays, operas, cabarets and, yes, puppet shows.
The problems with this play and the production do not lie with the production values — they are excellent. Set by Jason Simms, lighting by Japhy Weideman and sound by Scott Killian work together to engage the audience in the claustrophobic and frightening world of Finkelbaum’s madness.
Earle seems a bit young for the part of a man who has spent five years in a death camp and another five years in an apartment. His callow appearance does not evoke the image of a man who has survived agonizing terror. And his performance, while commendable for its energy, often lapses into shtick.
Franklin and Harrington are fine in their roles, but it is not until the end of the play and the appearance of his friend and fellow escapee, Schwartzkopf, sensitively played by Jesse Hinson, that the play came alive for me. It is Schwartzlopf’s intention to take Finkelbaum away from the apartment and ease him back into the world — he is the only character who realizes Finkelbaum’s true misery.
The play, it seems to me, could have been cut by half. There is too much dialogue for cogency and too little passion for complete engagement.