World War 2

George Tabori's Mein Kampf at Theater for the New City

This review of George Tabori's Mein Kampf at Theater For The New City was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Mein Kampf
Written by George Tabori
Directed by Manfred Bormann
Theater For The New City
155 First Avenue
New York, New York 10003
Reviewed 5/4/17

George Tabori's Mein Kampf represents the playwright's "darkly satirical" side. The irony of this poignant play about Hitler's youth in Vienna draws on Tabori's cleverly crafted circumstances to entice laughs despite the reality of how long past events once unfolded. The play paints Hitler as an incapable louse assisted in a flophouse (a residence for the poor) by an old and ugly Jewish man, Shlomo Herzl, who inadvertently allows the creation of the future monster. While it is a little unsettling to recall how Tabori seems to portray Hitler as imminently damnable, reflecting on the play may be the only reason I find it discomforting. The themes are portrayed in a well-contrasted manner presenting the futility of one's attempts to be a good person. Despite the fact that it may be light on realism, how can one not pause to ponder? The seriousness of the subject of Hitler causes lingering fear and a bitter taste in hopefully everyone. Regardless, Jewish himself, George Tabori's comical version of Hitler's youth may have been an effective way of framing events in an effort to make it easier to cope with the reality of World War II's atrocities. Tabori presents the starkness of evil alongside humor possibly partially as a means of reconciliation and also as a forewarning even if the humor is mixed with unconcealed hate.

The play is split into two acts that explore the fragile thread we walk as humans in different ways by following the life of the old, ugly Jewish man, Shlomo Herzl (Jon Freda); more often called "Shlomo." Shlomo opens with an intense discussion about fulfilling God's purpose with Lobkowitz (G.W. Reed), a man who believes himself to be God (after an accident involving head trauma). This exchange presents Shlomo, a man who sells Bibles, as a person who spreads the word of God regardless of denomination. Shlomo also questions the exercise, pitches a story about his life as a pathological liar who doomed his father as "Mein Kampf." Here we meet the embodiment of evil, young Hitler (Omri Kadim), who steps in and says "that's it" to the name and surprising the other two who thought the conversation was private. At first, Hitler doesn't seem much more than a little arrogant. He and Shlomo argue about proper manners, and he concedes to re-enter the room after knocking. As the two characters grow closer together, however, Hitler grows more despotic as Shlomo assumes a fatherly role to the young would-be artist who likes painting the twilight. For example, before Hitler's interview for attending the Academy of Fine Arts, Shlomo shines Hitler's shoes for him because Hitler is despondent about being unable to fix the mistake of having used brown instead of black polish. Only Shlomo can't fix everything because when Hitler runs out of the house, he forgets his pants. If only it had been as simple as putting on pants!

Hitler seems every bit as corruptible, impressionable, and paranoid as he needs to be from the start of his time in Vienna. In contrast to this representation of budding evil, Shlomo interacts with another character in the first act who shirks the pursuit of wealth: the excellent Andrea Lynn Green's Gretchen. While Hitler appears flamboyant and filled with ambition, Gretchen lacks greed or desire. When Shlomo questions why it is that she entreats an ugly, old man like him to devote his life to her, she responds simply. Her wealthy parents committed suicide because their life was just too perfect, they were too beautiful and rich. As a result, she intends to be with him, because he is both ugly and poor. As a metaphor for goodness, it makes sense, but during the play, it does come off as more than a bit awkward and slightly fantastical especially when Gretchen cuts Shlomo's toenails. In addition, it does make me wonder if all beautiful people that are interested in money are evil. That being said, the scene closed the first act on a high note. The four main actors that appeared were all very good. Jon Freda and Omri Kadim had tremendous rapport, working well together as Shlomo and Hitler respectively. All four had to contend with numerous distractions such as sirens and dogs barking but never once flinched.

Unfortunately, act two disappointed because not only did it add new layers to the plot rather than closing threads, the acting didn't match the intensity of the piece. Cordis Heard as Frau Death had some difficulty with lines and timing which seemed to throw off Freda as Shlomo as well. In addition, Jeff Burchfield as Himmlisch, had slight difficulty maintaining composure while violently pulling apart a chicken. He contained his shaking as he wielded a sharp knife with what seemed like an actual, raw chicken, but it had me worried. It may have been a better decision to mime the chopping, but luckily no one was hurt and he completed his soliloquy. These factors contributed to distract from the momentum that the first act developed. The major threads did tie rather neatly when Shlomo continued his luckless dooming of the innocent such as when his lies as a child doomed his father. In act two, in an effort to be a good person, Shlomo diverts Frau Death's attention in an effort to stave off Hitler's death. Is Shlomo, therefore, the one responsible for the death of everyone in World War II or are we, the audience, at fault for not stepping in? Tabori seems to challenge the audience directly and subtly during act two by asking us why we didn't do anything to stop evil in its tracks. After saving Hitler from death, Shlomo remarks to Death that perhaps the purpose of poetry is to "chat up death and stall" which could stand as a metaphor for the human condition diverting its attention as time slips away. It's the second time that Shlomo makes reference to the purpose of poetry during the play, but he changes the meaning a third time after Hitler "goes into politics." With Hitler demonstrating to Shlomo the man that he will become, Shlomo states that the purpose of poetry may, therefore, be "the entertainment of the wicked."

Considering the first iterations of Greek plays were considered forms of poems, have we the wicked, who only spectate as events unfold, been entertained? Yes. Overall, the cast and crew did a great job marred only slightly by some rough spots that made it difficult to fully appreciate the play's depth in the immediate aftermath of viewing it. I really liked the set design and for the most part, the acting was solid. The play contains a multitude of complex themes. While it doesn't seem to be concerned with discovering how it is that people become evil, it does present effective questioning of life and death and the meaning of life. If you come to understand how evil seeps in on men with even the purest and innocent of intentions, then you will be completely out of luck. If you're looking to be entertained by the hapless efforts of two strangers in Vienna with comedy that leans toward slapstick and the bonus of a resonantly original take on human existence, then Mein Kampf is definitely for you. See at Theater for the New City on May 14th, 3 p.m. or May 16-19th at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $18.00 for adults and $15.00 for students/seniors. They are available for purchase on the website, Enjoy!

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Luft Gangster at the Sheen Center

This review of Lowell Byers' Luft Gangster at the Sheen Center For Thought & Culture (Black Box Theater) was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Luft Gangster
Written by Lowell Byers
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Sheen Center For Thought & Culture
Black Box Theater
18 Bleecker Street
New York, New York 10012
Reviewed 4/15/17

Luft Gangster returns to the Sheen Center after a few years with many of the same cast members who appeared in the 2013 production. The play entertained audiences then and still does while providing context and clarity on life within a World War II German Prisoner Of War (POW) camp. The play latches onto your attention early and doesn't let go. The gradual building of intensity through the first few scenes, and the smooth introduction of various characters, actors, and settings, draws the viewer into the life of the lead character, Lou Fowler, played by Lowell Byers. Additionally, the script, characterization, and portrayal of the roles allow one to imagine the circumstances clearly without the play resorting to overdone dialogue.

Pre-performance at the Sheen Center

Pre-performance at the Sheen Center

The play begins with Lou Fowler at the bedside of his dying and widowed mother. This is a little unclear because the set design employed chairs as props for both chairs and beds. Following his mother's death, Lou signs up for the United States Army Air Corps and is eventually shot down over Yugoslavia in March 1944. Lou bails out of a falling plane and suffers shrapnel wounds to his leg and injures his shoulder. He is rescued by a peasant woman before being captured by the Germans. During his first interrogation, we learn the Germans are interested in specific technical and tactical information about Lou's bomber and bombing target. They utilize various techniques to get him to talk including the use of German-American spies posing as prisoners to encourage "cooperation." The Germans remind Lou of the many Germans who lost their loved ones during Allied bombing raids that deliberately targeted civilians. One of the surprising factors of this part of the play is the vast amount of information the Germans already knew about Lou Fowler, including the names of his family members and where he grew up. It is unclear how they were able to link Lou to his information considering Lou lost his dog tags in North Africa. Lou answers the questions with just his name, rank, and identification number, and is eventually shipped to a POW camp named Stalag Luft VI. 

Once Lou is at the POW camp, we are introduced to the remainder of the main characters in the form of other POWs. In total, there were two Brits - Randall, and Peter, as well as three Americans - Joe, Vinny, and Lou. While I can't say enough about the praiseworthy performance of Lowell Byers as Lou Fowler, the supporting cast was equally as impressive. Their ability to transition between different languages and effortlessly switch between roles built upon the intensity established by the circumstances of Lou's introduction. Ralph Byers, Lowell Byers' real life father, played a variety of German officers and did an especially brilliant job balancing intimidation with poise. Granted some of the characterizations were a little standard for World War II stories, however solid acting helped to create a sense of purpose to each character. Two of the best examples were Noel Joseph Allain as Randall and Paul Bomba as Vinny. They impressed with their consistent accents and ability to portray vivid personalities. Randall was a long term interned Brit who acted as domineering and self-righteous as one would expect. The gregarious New York Italian-American Vinny became the subject of suspicion for being a possible Jerry upon his introduction but later earned the trust of the rest of the group, especially when they started digging an escape tunnel.

Unfortunately, even after the group navigates the politics of the camp and fends off a potential German spy named Bill, the escape tunnel plan ends in the gruesome death of both Brits. Seth James' Peter provided the main comedic moments of the play with his various attempts to brew tea. In fact, the desperation of Peter to find a good tea highlighted the difficulty of life in the POW camp which was additionally emphasized through Lou's lagging leg injury and the discussion of eating charcoal. The group attempts a second escape using Vinny's Prune Jack, a home-brewed alcohol, which ends in the execution of Werner, a German officer, and solitary confinement for the remaining three Americans. During his time in solitary confinement, Lou hallucinates his family and friends, both living and dead. He snaps out of the hallucination to learn from Otto, a guard he has befriended, that the prisoners are about to go on a death march as the Russian forces are closing in. On this march, the three Americans devise a final escape plan, which involves a moral dilemma for Lou, and great risk for all three. Afterward and with his last breaths of life, Lou is rescued by an American soldier. 

Lou Fowler is portrayed as a decent fellow who steers clear of the more questionable moral decisions made by the other prisoners. For example, Lou doesn't interfere when Bill is killed by a Brit on the mere suspicion of being a German spy. In addition, when Otto needs to be sacrificed, Lou seemed torn up by the decision but how much resistance could Lou have offered when Otto stood between them and possible freedom? Interestingly, despite his bum leg, Lou was the only one to escape of the five POWs portrayed within the play. 

Luft Gangster kept things engaging on both a personal and dramatic level. The actors and the detail provided by the set and costume designers brought a gloomy subject to life. While a very small portion of the story seemed cliche, the truth is that we've probably just seen and heard a lot of stories about World War II at this point. This intense play moved fast. At points, time and scene switches were hard to catch while at other times it was very clear. Despite various time leaps, the play is fairly easy to follow due to its linear plot. Lou Fowler was a real person, and the play is written by Lowell Byers, his cousin, who also plays the lead role. Apparently, few, if any, artistic liberties were taken, so this is a true story of a World War II veteran's escape from certain death acted out over 70 years later by a much younger cousin. I'd recommend seeing this play especially if you're interested in World War II or gritty stories. It plays through April 30, 2017 at the Sheen Center. Tickets cost $29-$32 and can be purchased by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or by visiting

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