Friday , April 12 2024
Jodie Markell in 'Leni's Last Lament'
Photo credit: Leslie Hassler

Theater Review (NYC): ‘Leni’s Last Lament’ – A Leni Riefenstahl Historical Cabaret

Leni Riefenstahl died in 2003 at age 101, but she lives on in not one but two currents of cultural history. An influential film director and producer of the 1930s, she was also Hitler’s infamous documentarian. Leni’s Last Lament brings her back to life through the magic of cabaret-theater in an engaging, entertaining, intelligent and informative one-woman show starring Obie Award winner Jodie Markell. Richard Caliban directs the world premiere Brave New World Repertory Theatre production at The Invisible Dog in Brooklyn through March 30.

Playwright Gil Kofman offers us a Leni who has returned from the dead to try to justify herself to a present-day American audience. He laces the narrative with snatches of original songs cleverly crafted in Weimar-era style. Markell’s Leni takes us, cabaret-style, through her career as first a dancer, then an actor in 1920s movies, and then a director who worked closely with Hitler and made several Nazi films, most notably the propaganda film Triumph of the Will in 1935 and Olympia documenting the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Markell makes Riefenstahl captivating and sensuous, egotistical but vulnerable. The show rightly depicts the filmmaker as a barrier-smashing female artist in an overwhelmingly male-dominated society, while taking a skeptical attitude toward her contention that she didn’t know the evils the Nazis were up to when she made those films. Kofman’s script, Markell’s charisma and Caliban’s atmospheric and inventive production add up to a smart, funny, and chilling experience.

The show is also an impressive feat for a solo performer. While cabaret shows often sustain a narrative, this role demands a performance of continuous focus through a dense script, costume changes, song and dance, and direct audience engagement. The only other performer on stage (occasionally) is musician Spiff Weigand, who first appears as a frightening physical presence in a prologue. After that he is usually a sinister shadow, adding live accordion, violin, and percussion to recorded music and sound effects.

Impactful projections behind Markell show historical photos, war footage, clips from Riefenstahl’s films, and other materials (Star Wars fans take note). Kudos to projection designer Joey Moro for supplementing and magnifying Markell’s enactment of Riefenstahl’s story without diverting us from it.

But without a compelling star any show like this would fall flat. Markell brings her all and connects solidly, with pathos and fire.

The most powerful sequences comes toward the end. Riefenstahl rifles through strips of film hunting for footage she can insert into old films in a futile attempt to revise her legacy. Coming up empty, she attempts to deputize the audience as subjects for revised footage. Assertive but desperate, the move encapsulates the split identity of this pioneering artist and consorter with evil.

The creative team seems to have been unsure how to end the show. A couple of moments felt like perfect endings that then weren’t, and a surreal closing sequence goes on too long. But that caveat aside, Leni’s Last Lament is a triumph – not of the will, but of theater as a medium for channeling history and keeping it alive so we remember it, and can try, against all odds, not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Leni’s Last Lament is next headed for the Edinburgh Fringe in August. For now, it runs through March 30 at The Invisible Dog in Brooklyn – not one of Brave New World Repertory’s site-specific shows, but an appropriately atmospheric venue nonetheless. Tickets are available online.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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