Published in KPBS On Air Magazine February 1992

You’re peering into a small, dark, cluttered room. The man inside, with the numbers tattooed on his arm, hasn’t left the place in five years. The light is dim, but as you squint and focus, you can see that behind the black gauze of walls, there are human limbs protruding. Enter the imagination of “The Puppetmaster of Lodz”, as brought to you by Blackfriars Theatre (opening February 14).

The company itself has been boxed in — by its name. Known for ten years as the Bowery Theatre, artistic director Ralph Elias felt the original moniker had negative connotations, recalling the Bowery Boys films or the bums on New York ‘s raggedy Lower East Side .   Elias describes the name change as “representing a positive transition for the company.”

The new appellation has a long history and positive associations.   Blackfriars was the name of the theater in which The King’s Men, the company for which Shakespeare acted and wrote, began performing in 1608. It’s a serious sobriquet, and that’s just what Elias was aiming for.   “”As we’re trying to expand our audience and basis of support,” he explains, “we want more people — audience, foundations and contributors — to take us seriously. Our name should reflect that we take ourselves seriously.   The Bowery name was kind of tongue-in-cheek, regarding the original seedy location in the basement of a seedy residential hotel in a questionable neighborhood (Fifth and Elm), with a questionable liquor store across the street.”

At the same time as the Blackfriars took on a new name, it home-base — formerly the Kingston Hotel, with its Kingston Playhouse — has changed hands and names. It’s now the Bristol Court Hotel and its 78-seat theater space is called the Bristol Court Playhouse.   The new management seems to be as supportive of the theater company as the original one, recognizing that having the theater inside makes the hotel unique and promotes visibility.

The theater company, meanwhile, like most in San Diego and the country, had a rough time last year. Audience numbers and donors were down. With a mounting deficit, they were forced to cancel one show, and reschedule another. Even their critically well-received productions, such as “Stories About the Old Days” and “Abundance,” didn’t do as well at the box office as they’d hoped. The survival of the theater is at peril. But the one production Elias was determined to mount (the one he had to cancel at almost precisely this time last year) was “The Puppetmaster of Lodz.”

A creation of Gilles Segal, a Romanian Jew writing in French, the bittersweet dramatic piece received its American premiere at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in 1989.   “”It’s not just another heavy-duty essay on the emptiness of the post-Holocaust world,” says Elias.   “It’s a unique look at the results of overwhelming events. Very entertaining, very theatrical, often very funny.”

It has to do with Finkelbaum, who was a puppeteer in the Polish city of Lodz prior to World War II. He was sent to a concentration camp, where he came upon his pregnant wife as he was cleaning out a gas chamber. He escaped to Berlin and holed up with a sympathetic concierge.

We meet him five years after the war. Finkelbaum refuses to believe that the war and the Holocaust are over.   He refuses to come out of his apartment. He lives with his puppets in a fantasy world, even treating and talking to one of them as his wife.  

“”He lives in fantasy to maintain his sanity,” Elias explains.   “He’s a kind of Everyman, who represents any thinking, feeling person in the late twentieth century.   We’re all so overwhelmed by realities and events: the threat of nuclear war, the irreparable damage to the environment, the decline of American civilization.   Finkelbaum is trying to make sense of things for himself. If he accepts the reality of the world, he will surely go insane. His fantasy is sanity; reality is madness.”

It’s no easy task to capture onstage the subtleties of Finkelbaum’s internal and external world. Once again, as in their prior, marvelously felicitous collaborations (“Teibele and Her Demon,” “Abundance”), Elias turned to SDSU professor Beeb Salzer for scenic design.

The challenge for Salzer was recreating Finkelbaum’s inner world, and getting the audience to enter into that world. “The question here,” he says, “is whether the audience will understand that this is not a real world. It’s kind of in his head. His whole life is in his head. The set will be a very dark presence, but strange, funny things happen along the way.”  

And why the body-parts walls? “Because the memory is not present in the actual text until later,” says Salzer.   “But it’s hanging over everything the whole time, and it explains why he’s doing what he’s doing.    You have to get into the head of these kinds of characters. If we’re not all like him in some way — making up our own world and protecting ourselves with our fantasies — there’s no point; then this is just an extreme case.   We all lie to ourselves.   But we don’t all have puppets.”

©1992 Patté Productions Inc.