By Rebecca McCarthy George Tabori
There are moments in George Tabori’s “Mein Kampf,” which opens March 12 at 7 Stages Theatre, that make the audience squirm. After all, the play imagines Adolf Hitler as an aspiring landscape artist who’s trying to make his way in 1910 Vienna.
We know well the monster that Hitler, the former country bumpkin, becomes, but none of the characters in the play, not even Hitler himself, does. It’s this sense of dark foreboding that is, well, horrifying.
When Hitler tells the Jewish man who has befriended him, “I’ll buy you an oven so you’ll be warm,” we cringe, just as Tabori wants us to.
“Mein Kampf,” once the most performed play in Germany, showcases the playwright’s considerable comic and intellectual gifts. It’s erudite, ironic, funny, touching and profound.
According to director Del Hamilton, Tabori’s temper-tantrum-throwing, fussy Fuhrer-to-be was one of the first live Hitlers to take the stage since World War II when the play premiered in 1987. Until then, German-speaking countries had outlawed any such portrayals. But Tabori believed that “there are taboos that must be broken or they will continue to choke us.”
The University Theatre at the University of Georgia staged “Mein Kampf,” with Hamilton as guest director, in conjunction with an academic conference in Athens, “George Tabori and the Theatre of the Holocaust.” The three-day event, which ended March 1, attracted scholars from Austria, Canada, England, Germany, Israel and Italy, as well as the United States, to discuss the theatrical representations of the Shoah.
The “Mein Kampf” cast is wonderful, especially UGA professor T. Anthony Marotta as Shlomo Herzl, an educated, impoverished Jewish book peddler who sells copies of the Bible and “Fanny Hill.” He’s also a would-be writer — though he hasn’t yet penned a line — who’s the beating heart and moral compass of the play.
Also good is Jessica Moore, who seems delighted to portray Frau Death, a smoking, smirking sex bomb. Other characters are the loquacious chef Lobkowitz, played by Wyatt Geist, and Gretchen, a rich Viennese young woman who is Herzl’s love interest and is played by Julianne Whitehead. Myles Haslam plays the young, sputtering Hitler.
John Wright’s set places us in a dim, dank flophouse in a seedy section of Vienna. The room is rimmed by beds and anchored by a large outhouse. The play opens with Lobkowitz, who believes himself to be God, lighting a menorah and reciting prayers for the dead. He and Herzl, who has had a night of selling books, have a rapid-fire conversation that touches on an autobiography Herzl plans to write called “Mein Kampf.” They are interrupted by the arrival of young Adolf, a petulant, spoiled brat sporting knickers and carrying a portfolio of provincial paintings. When Lobkowitz learns Hitler’s name, he says, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.”
Herzl takes the doughy Adolf under his wing and tries to smooth out the rough patches, preparing him for the difficult life awaiting a starving artist, even as Hitler confesses, “I want something else. The world.”
“All of it?” Herzl asks patiently.
“Yes. Even New Zealand.”
Herzl later tells Hitler, “You’re a terrible actor. You should go into politics.”
The pace of the play slows when Frau Death takes center stage, but I enjoyed the commentary she delivers to the audience. Some of her moments with Hitler are chilling. Meanwhile, something about Moore reminds me of Madeline Kahn, and that’s a good thing.
What: “Mein Kampf”
Where: 7 Stages Theatre, 1105 Euclid Ave., Little Five Points
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, March 12 to 14; 5 p.m. Sunday, March 15
Tickets: $22.50; www.7stages.org/events/mein-kampf