Chicago Theatre Review
Hitler on the Roof – Akavit Theatre
In actress/director/playwright Rhea Leman’s absurdist comic drama, now enjoying its American
premiere in Chicago, we are treated to the English adaptation of this Nordic play written six years ago in response to the rise of Danish Nationalism. In spite of its original intent, Leman’s Play for Two Clowns, as presented today in America, feels profoundly timely and topical. With this country mired in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” with minorities and freedom of speech becoming increasingly endangered, much of the dialogue and themes from this 95-minute one-act play sound incredibly and frighteningly familiar.
Set far below the streets of modern-day Berlin, deep inside a filthy, litter-strewn bunker, Nazi propagandist Dr. Joseph Goebbels has been sentenced to suffer eternity alone in a dark, hellacious environment. With only a blind devotion to his Fuhrer and a pompous, vainglorious pride in his horrendous accomplishments during the rise of Nazism, Goebbels has now become a radio DJ. While basking in his past glories, longing for his children and denying the truth and reality of Hitler’s evil campaign, Goebbels, his face smeared in clown makeup, sings snatches of pop songs and performs production numbers from Broadway shows. Every so often the noise from above sounds threatening enough that Goebbels stops his broadcast to duck under the table. Within this stifling, smoky, gloomy atmosphere, the long-winded doctor proudly explains how people’s minds can easily be changed and reprogramed if a lie is repeated loudly and often enough. Sound familiar?
About halfway through the play, to the strains of the famous German love song, “Lili Marlene,” another character suddenly enters Goebbels’ nether world. In a blond wig, tight dress and tattered stockings, German actress/screenwriter/director Leni Reifenstahl, the woman responsible for directing two of the most influential propaganda films ever made, arrives on the scene. While it’s said that she enjoyed a very close relationship with Hitler, and even became part of his inner circle, Leni was considered an integral component of the success of the Holocaust; but now she appears to be repenting her involvement in this detestable act of extermination. In Leman’s vision of the Underworld, the actress confronts Dr. Goebbels, attempting to seduce him into also confessing his own sins and admitting guilt and regret for his part in the Holocaust.
Amy Gorelow and Jay Torrence broadly play Joseph Goebbels and Leni Reifenstahl. Costumed in drag, designed with period detail by Piper Hubbell Robinson, and sporting their own garish clown makeups, these two talented actors tear up the stage. Nothing is sacred and this pair leave it all out there on the stage, imprisoned within Chad Eric Bergman’s otherworldly scenic conception. Nigel Harsch’s bold sound design, complemented by an ethereal lighting plot by Emma Deane, and Bernadette Hagen’s fuzzy b&w projections, thoroughly enhance this eerie world located below the streets of Berlin.
Co-directed with humor and unabashed spunk and spirit by Kristin Franklin and Amber Robinson, with expert dialect guidance by Sammi Grant, this show is never subtle. It’s a continually bombastic and unrelenting tirade that always hits home. Primarily presentational, the audience becomes an integral part of this nightmare-like Neverland, as they’re pushed to repeat slogans from Third Reich propaganda, encouraged to sing and clap along with Goebbels’ show tune presentations and made to endure lectures about what made the Nazi Seizure of Power great. It’s all done tongue in cheek, of course; but you know what say about history repeating itself?
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 21-July 9 by Akavit Theatre at the new Srawdog Theatre Company, 1802 W. Berenice, Chicago.
Tickets are available by going to www.chicagonordic.org
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.