Playwright: Gilles Segal; translated by Tonen Sara O'Connor
At: Writers' Theatre at 664 Vernon, Glencoe
Phone: 847-242-6000; $40-$58
Through July 8
BY SCOTT C. MORGAN
A play about the Holocaust with puppets?
Drop your trepidation right now about Writers' Theatre's The Puppetmaster of Lodz. Not only does the puppetry fit neatly into the play, but its integral role contributes to the power of Gilles Segal's drama. Don't be surprised if the puppets help tug at your heartstrings and tear ducts.
Larry Neumann, Jr., plays the eccentric title puppetmaster Finkelbaum, a Polish man who escaped from a concentration camp. Holed up in a moldering Berlin attic apartment ( a wonderfully squalid set by designer Keith Pitts suggesting an awful pungency ) , Finkelbaum refuses to believe that the war has ended.
Finkelbaum coddles and questions a mannequin-sized facsimile of his late wife, Rachel, as if she were still alive. Planning a new show about his daring escape, Finkelbaum constantly asks his puppet wife for advice while struggling with a petulant hand puppet who constantly screams out, 'No!'
Thankfully, the play isn't all a maudlin revelry of Finkelbaum and puppets. The unsettling conflict comes with Finkelbaum's closed-door interactions with his frustrated concierge landlady ( a very Gillian Anderson-looking Jennifer Avery ) .
The concierge does her best to convince Finkelbaum the war is over. She even brings a series of guests to his door, ranging from like Russian and American soldiers to a Jewish lawyer ( all brilliantly played by John Hoogenakker ) to prove her point.
At first this all seems like situation comedy stuff to convince the eccentric recluse that World War II is over. But the audience soon understands Finkelbaum's distrust as the ulterior motives of the guests turn doubtful and sinister. You can genuinely see why Finkelbaum is justified with his doubt, especially w hen he re-enacts his disturbing concentration camp experiences with his puppets ( all masterful creations of puppeteer Michael Montenegro ) .
Even with the late arrival of a final character ( affectingly played by actor Steve Ratcliff ) , you can see why Finkelbaum finds such safety and solace in the puppet-filled remnants of his pre-war life.
Director Jimmy McDermott guides his powerful ensemble through the dramatic and emotional highs of the play quite well. Neumann, as Finkelbaum, gets a particularly wrenching workout—not only physically manipulating the puppets, but emotionally as well.
While there's no escaping the play's wallowing in the horror of man's inhumanity to his fellow man, it's pretty much a prerequisite of any drama dealing with the Holocaust. Surprisingly, the puppets help to ratchet up that horror symbolically without uttering a word—making The Puppetmaster of Lodz an even more powerful experience.