Hitler called Leni Riefenstahl “my perfect German woman.” The first time she saw him, in 1932, she said “I feel very happy that such a man has come.”
Riefenstahl opened the movie camera’s eye. In her world-famous documentaries Triumph of the Will and Olympia, she invented or popularized: the “tracking shot”; slo-motion in sports films; multiple cameras on a scene; and the “heroic” angle — shooting up at a subject’s protruding jaw. If she was just a supremely talented filmmaker, Riefenstahl wouldn’t be a problem.
She lived to be 101 and always claimed to be unaware of Nazi persecutions and death camps. (For a much more accurate picture, read Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism,” New York Review of Books, Feb. 6, 1975). During World War II, the poet Ezra Pound praised Mussolini on Italian radio. Riefenstahl’s brilliantly filmed, fascist propaganda helped inspire the rise of Hitler’s Germany. How to account for such sensitivity and savagery in one person? How to account for Macbeth?
Playwright Jordan Harrison’s approach is hyper-camp. Amazons and Their Men takes place in a “safe” zone, apart from the world. The Frau (aka. Riefenstahl) is trying to film an adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist’s Penthesilea, based on a brief passage in Homer’s Iliad. Toward the end of the Trojan War, she brought her Amazon warriors from the end of the earth to help Troy. Achilles, as was his wont, murdered her. But in the moment of her death, their eyes met. He fell in love.
So The Frau wants a love story inside a war story. Amazons adds one too: the Jewish actor playing Achilles (called The Man) falls in love with the Gypsy actor playing Achilles’ tent-mate Patroclus (The Boy). Inside the epic and its rage for purity, a human story grows. Jealous beyond belief, the Frau sends the two men to their fates wearing a star and a triangle.
Amazons marks the directorial debut of Diversionary’s Executive Artistic Director Matt M. Morrow. That he chose a theatrically demanding piece speaks well of his intentions. With a single screen, moved here and there, and Tara Knight’s terrific projections (especially the grainy flickers of silent movies), the 75-minute show abounds with jump-cuts and blackouts, like the 34 unfinished scenes of the Frau’s film.
The production’s tone, however, flits and jumps as well. Deliberately shrill, Kerry McCue adds even more grotesquerie to the already grotesque Frau. Like Hitler on crack, she spouts and fumes in epic amounts. She’s funny at times, and quite consistent, but her excesses give the piece a lopsided tilt that detracts from the more serious aspects of the play: the budding lovers (John DeCarlo as The Man and Jewels Weinberg as The Boy; both capable) and Tiffany Tang, a new face and quite good, as The Extra – who in effect represents the imperfect us the Frau would excise from the set, and from the world?
Diversionary’s Amazons is definitely worth seeing. And, if they tone it down and re-balance the emphases, worth hearing too.