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The Puppetmaster of Lodz


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National Jewish Theater

We were talking in the lobby before the show, and that was when I heard that this was a Holocaust play and, not only that, that it would be performed without an intermission. Two words suddenly popped into my head with such a sudden irony and vulgarity that, in a rare display of tact, I kept them to myself: "Never again."

As it turns out, this isn't a play about the Holocaust, but rather a play about remembering the Holocaust. That's a significant distinction, I think, and something possibly indicative of a trend. A couple years ago the National Jewish Theater produced another play about remembering the Holocaust, called A Shayna Maidel (A Pretty Girl), which is now in its 12th month of an off-Broadway run. Maybe we've reached a time when the Holocaust seems so historically remote that playwrights are seeking to refresh our memory in hopes that we'll learn from history. Yet there's a huge gap between remembering and learning, and an even larger gap between learning and doing something about it. So if those words, "never again," mean anything anymore, how do we explain what's happened to the Cambodians and Ugandans, and, yes, the Palestinians? Apparently our memory is intact, but our judgment and courage could stand some improvement.

Samuel Finkelbaum is the "puppetmaster" of Lodz. It's 1950, but Finkelbaum still hides out in his room in Berlin, refusing to believe the war's over. At this point his concierge suddenly and inexplicably takes it into her head to bring Finkelbaum back to reality. What's she been doing for the past five years? Who knows? Knitting maybe. Anyway, she invites a series of visitors to come up and talk Finkelbaum out of hiding: a Russian soldier, an American GI, a Jewish lawyer, and a doctor. Yet Finkelbaum won't be persuaded. He's too wrapped up in the horror of his death-camp memories (which he re-creates with his puppets), as well as the loss of his wife, who is represented by a large, stuffed dummy. Finkelbaum is a prisoner of trauma.

So far, so good. Finkelbaum deserves our pity, and he might have gotten it too if this situation wasn't so contrived and he wasn't boring us to tears. Strike that, no tears. This guy is a putz. Practically all we hear about his wife is that she was pregnant when she was killed. So what was she, other than a vehicle for regeneration? Instead, in monologues and puppet shows, we hear about Finkelbaum's life, his loss, his sense of guilt. It's appallingly obvious that he's become more than a little self-involved during his confinement, which keeps him at arm's length as a sympathetic character. Despite some credible acting on Gerry Becker's part, I've felt more empathy for animals in the zoo. Besides, Becker doesn't even qualify as a puppeteer's apprentice. But ultimately I can't blame Becker; Gilles Segal's script is largely at fault.

Meanwhile, the plot thickens, or at least gets murkier. It happens that those four people invited up by the concierge are one person in four disguises. This mysterious visitor is a Nazi hunter, working under the suspicion that Finkelbaum is really a Nazi hiding out under the extraordinary cover of one of his victims. Unholy reversal, Batman! But no, this turns out not to be the case. So why bring it up? Is this a thriller or what? What's going on?

Laying such unanswered questions aside, Segal introduces his deus ex machina, Schwartzkopf, who escaped with Finkelbaum from the death camp years earlier. Finkelbaum is thus vindicated, snapped out of his delusion, and convinced to come away with Schwartzkopf and start a new life. But first Finkelbaum decides to burn his special edition of Holocaust puppets--which is easily the eeriest, most theatrical, and overbearingly symbolic moment of the play. This cues the concierge to make yet another appearance and reiterate, "The war is over," which sets Schwartzkopf up for his big curtain line, "So they say. So they say." Then the lights fade as Schwartzkopf holds the emotionally exhausted Finkelbaum in his arms and gazes meaningfully into the wood-burning stove.

Now if that doesn't push all your buttons, you're not a Jew. Which I'm not. And so I'm sitting there wondering whether I'm supposed to be moved, enlightened, or galvanized into prompt social action. But I'm bored and a little annoyed. There was potential here. There was a dramatic metaphor about the puppetmaster as God, but it was left by the wayside along with the subplot involving the Nazi hunter. There was an evocation of one of history's greatest tragedies, which degenerated into crude emotional manipulation. And manipulation to what purpose? To remember, to learn, to act? All I think I learned was that I wasn't a member of the victim club.

Fine. Who wants to be a victim? And why should there be a play capitalizing on a people's need to celebrate, if that's the appropriate word, their victimization? And The Puppetmaster of Lodz seems to be pulling those very strings. This is a play about Jews, in Germany, and Schwartzkopf's statement, "Who knows? It can begin again any day," doesn't go very far to universalize the situation. The implicit message at the end of the play is the militant cliche of it's the Jews against the world.

Either through Segal's confused play writing, or through J.R. Sullivan's myopic direction, the greater part of the message is missing here. After all, Finkelbaum is a prisoner of his own horror. However corny the ending, Finkelbaum puts the past behind him in order to rejoin the human race. With Schwartzkopf's help, Finkelbaum overcomes his paranoia. And it's this point that is so hopelessly fumbled. Because I'm left with no sense that Schwartzkopf will come to visit the rest of the Jews, and invite them to join--and incite--the rest of the world in a universal struggle against genocide. That's the problem. And if morbid puppet shows only serve as an exercise in self-pity, then they stand in the way of the solution.

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