STRONG CAST LIGHTS UP PLAY
Story of woman called Hitler’s filmmaker leaves viewer wanting to know more
By ANDREA NEMETZ Entertainment Reporter | Theatre Review
Leni Riefenstahl. Hitler’s filmmaker.
The two phrases go hand-in-hand, whether or not you are familiar with her most famous works, Olympia and Triumph of the Will.
But throughout her life, Riefenstahl, who died in 2003 at the age of 101, struggled to free herself of that association.
The Blue Light, produced by DMV Theatre Collective, investigates the woman behind the technically brilliant films that were used as propaganda by Germany’s National Socialist party.
Running onstage at the Bus Stop Theatre, 2203 Gottingen St., Halifax, to Jan. 24, the two-hour 15-minute production is an intense and thought-provoking look at a fascinating woman that leaves you wanting to know more.
The play, by Canadian Mieko Ouchi, does not draw any conclusions, nor is it able to investigate Riefenstahl’s life in detail.
Riefenstahl was an acclaimed dancer before turning to acting. She appeared in a variety of mountain epics before getting a chance to direct.
The play takes its name from her first film, The Blue Light, a film that she directed, produced and starred in. It won a silver medal at the Venice film festival, attracted the interest of Hitler and invitations to make films for the Third Reich.
After the war, she turned to photography, publishing acclaimed books on the Nuba people of Africa and taking celebrity portraits, including Mick Jagger. She learned to scuba dive in her early 70s and took up underwater photography.
She survived a helicopter crash at the age of 97 while visiting the Sudan to check on her Nuba friends during a civil war.
So, it’s not surprising that The Blue Light feels as if it is merely skimming the surface.
The play opens with a 100-year-old Riefenstahl in the office of a fictional, young, female Hollywood producer, desperately trying to get one last feature film made before she dies.
As Riefenstahl, Pam Halstead, the former artistic producer at Ship’s Company Theatre in Parrsboro, gives a tour-de-force performance. She effortlessly shifts between an aged woman, with rapier-sharp wit, full of defiance and bristling with scarcely contained anger at any suggestion of criticism, and a young, talented, ambitious woman who refuses to take no for an answer.
Her hunched shoulders, stiff hips and measured movements give way to a proud, athletic woman who is well aware of her sensual effect on men and heedless of their feelings.
But it is her eyes and her mouth that tell the tale. Eyes that once lit up with excitement have become dead. There are no smiles, just a careful no-expression expression.
It is the face of a woman who has erected impenetrable barriers in the face of relentless criticism, determined not to let anyone’s opinion affect her.
The producer, nicely played with simmering emotion kept under careful control by Kate Lavender, stands in for the audience. She asks the questions the audience wants to know. Are you sorry? Why have you never apologized? Why did you do what you did?
She implores Riefenstahl to give her some kind of answer, to provide some closure, or explanation, of a woman who is an icon of particular importance to female filmmakers and feminists in general.
But Riefenstahl won’t give her what she’s looking for.
Her story is told cinematically, by cutting back and forth from the present to the past.
And, as opposed to the cold, emotionless woman we often picture, we see her laughing and loving, seeking her father’s approval (he was opposed to her dancing career), teasing her younger brother, flirting with her besotted, young cameraman, insisting to veteran film director Arnold Fanck that the novice actress knows how to shoot movies better than he does — and proving it.
We also watch her ambivalence as she becomes part of history. Much like her refusal to entertain criticism, she flat out refuses to acknowledge her part in it.
While the story mostly belongs to the women, there are nice turns by Brian Heighton, Duval Lang and Matthew Thomas Walker.
Heighton is a chilling Goebbels and bullying film director Fanck. Walker is touchingly sincere as the love-struck cinematographer Flea and Riefenstahl’s much more introspective soldier brother.
As the father, Lang strikes a range of emotions from autocratic but doting parent, to broken German patriot. He also appears as Walt Disney who genuinely admires Riefenstahl but won’t consider screening her work. As Hitler, he seems ready to pop a gasket onstage, with a palpable, maniacal rage that can’t be contained.
The intensity of emotion is enhanced by the intimate nature of the theatre. The action is presented between two shallow rows of audience members, so you feel as if you are onstage in conversation with the protagonists in the story.
However, the too-frequent jumps in time make it hard to have an emotional connection with Riefenstahl and therefore hard to understand the character or define what it is we feel about her.
The Blue Light runs at 8 p.m. tonight and Wednesday through Jan. 24. Reservations recommended.
Review for The Blue Light
by KATE WATSON -The Coast
There’s something paradoxically disturbing and satisfying about a play like The Blue Light that leaves you with as many questions as answers. It’s the story of Leni Riefenstahl, a talented and innovative filmmaker who rubbed shoulders with Hitler and Goebbels and made films used as propaganda for the Nazi cause
Pamela Halstead does a remarkable job of playing Riefenstahl as both the young and ambitious dancer/actress/filmmaker and the elderly and unrepentant woman struggling to cast off the shadows of her past. The rapid cuts between Riefenstahl’s past and present-day scenes with a fictitious Hollywood executive (ably played by Kate Lavender) as well as the physical transposing of the scene after intermission cleverly give this play a cinematic feel. And while it raises questions about Riefenstahl’s culpability and the role of art in society it never presumes to give the answers, making this the first must-see play of 2010.