KPBS AIRDATE: February 19, 1992
Berlin , 1950. A man sits in a darkened room, alone with his nightmares and his fantasies. He has numbers on his arm, puppets all over the place and a very vivid imagination. He refuses to believe the war is over. He hasn’t ventured out of his bleak little hiding place for five years. He is “The Puppetmaster of Lodz,” a puppeteer from a little Polish town, preparing the performance of his lifetime — the story of his life. And, talking to his myriad puppets — representing his wife, himself, the rabbi, the concierge, his comrades at the concentration camp — he rehearses day and night, trying to create and reinvent his own reality. He wants to remember and forget, to go mad and to stay sane.
Romanian-Jewish playwright Gilles Ségal underscores the madness of reality and the sanity of Finkelbaum’s fantasy world. It is a forceful but flawed play, with a magnificent central figure, and an annoying parade of visitors peeking in the keyhole and trying to coax him to come out. Except for the dependable and ever-changing Paul Nolan, the supporting actors are just not up to the task. Accents waver and vary; we don’t get a sense of character in the concierge or the pivotal visitor, Schwartzkopf.
But Robert Zukerman, who plays the puppetmaster Finkelbaum with aching intensity, is nothing short of astonishing. He is onstage the full ninety minutes, manipulating puppets, assuming different voices, railing at the world, at himself, and at God. He may be miserable, but he’s also funny; besides his fantasy, humor is his only other defense against a senseless world.
The play is not just another post-war polemic. The playwright gives new resonance to the crazy-quilt that is now the “New World Order.” Are we out of danger? Is it safe to come out now? Not really. The Holocaust isn’t over, and not only for these survivors. “Who knows?” says Schwartzkopf. “It can begin again any day. Didn’t you hear the news this morning?”
A little shock, a little twinge of fear, a thought-provoking evening of theater. Blackfriars (formerly the Bowery) has done it again — selected and served up another haunting, provocative play in a powerful production. Ralph Elias knows how to pick ’em (except for a few casting decisions), and he knows how to direct ’em. The very inventive Beeb Salzer knows just how to design ’em. Look closely; those black walls in the tiny little room are lined with limbs, leftover body parts that Finkelbaum helped burn in the camp and still smolder in his mind. This is a formidable creative team, a dynamic collaboration.
Center-stage, it’s Zukerman’s evening. But behind the scenes, it’s Blackfriars’ triumph.
I’m Pat Launer for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.