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A Tale of Love and Denial : 'Puppetmaster of Lodz,' inaugurating Storefront Theatre at El Portal, explores a survivor's view of the Holocaust.

June 02, 1995|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T. H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times.

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — Shattered by the Northridge earthquake, bound by miles of bureaucratic red tape, but undaunted, Actors Alley Repertory Theatre is finally moving tonight into at least part of its three-theater complex at the historic El Portal Theatre. The show must go on--and Actors Alley is proving it.

Although the company's mid-size, 350-plus-seat Equity space, and its 90-seat theater will not be finished until the end of the year, AART's production of "The Puppetmaster of Lodz" by French playwright Gilles Segal inaugurates its 45-seat Storefront Theatre at the complex this weekend.

It commemorates not only the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi Germany's concentration camps, but also the June 12 birthday of Holocaust victim Anne Frank. As a matter of fact, a star honoring Frank will be placed in front of the theater to mark the occasion.

Does that mean that "Puppetmaster of Lodz" is another Holocaust play? Only partly, according to AART artistic director Jeremiah Morris and the play's translator, Sara O'Connor. The play takes place in 1950 and concerns a camp escapee, Samuel Finkelbaum, who found his way to Berlin and who has barricaded himself in an attic, refusing to go outside because of his firm belief that the war has not ended and that his life is still in jeopardy.

Finkelbaum makes puppets and marionettes, and in preparing the show he will present at war's end, he obscures the horrific reality of his tale with creations of his own imagination, formed out of his denial of an unacceptable truth.

"It's a fascinating play," says Morris. "It deals with the paranoia that ran rampant among the people of Europe after the Holocaust, and I don't just mean the Jews and the Gypsies and gays and other persecuted groups. That monster caused paranoia that had a basis in reality. They were all afraid. They were sure someone was after them. In many cases they were right.

"The play questions the validity of God, a God who would let half his people get killed. Although, in true Talmudic fashion they say, 'Well, what about a God who saves the other half?' "

Morris feels that it is important to keep doing plays about the Holocaust, not only because of the Jews who died, but also because of the other groups that were decimated. People too easily forget, he feels, and it is too easy for it to happen again.

Hitler could have been stopped, Morris says, "but it seems we don't stop it wherever it happens. It's going on now all over again.

"If it's not in your back yard, it's not bothering you, so why get involved? It's beyond comprehension. It happens with the words, 'nigger,' 'kike,' 'mick,' 'wop' and 'spic.' When you start to dehumanize people, then it becomes easy to kill them."

But Morris says that the play is not all that grim. There's a great deal of humor in it. He calls it a play about denial, paranoia, guilt and love, deep love. He says it attracted him because of the humor and what he calls its super-theatricality.

Translator O'Connor, managing director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre since 1974, talks about the play from her office in Milwaukee, and she agrees with Morris.

"It's extraordinarily theatrical," O'Connor says, "because it's dependent upon pretense that is standing in for reality. It happens in everyone's life, but in this case it's an artist's real intent to fly in the face of not only actual fact, but to refashion a world that is better than the one God let happen. There is a kind of competition going on between the puppet master and God."

O'Connor found the play through another French playwright, Jean-Claude Grumberg, whose plays she has also translated for the Milwaukee Theatre. And, she says, it is definitely a translation and not an adaptation.

"It's a tight, compact, rather perfect small piece," O'Connor says. "A good translation is like the work of a good director or good actor. You're desperately trying to hear that playwright's voice."

O'Connor, like Morris, doesn't want to give the impression that the play is grim.

"It's sad, and very moving," she says, "but it's also very funny, if you can imagine that. There is a great deal of humor, but it also demands really fast shifts between humor and despair. Finkelbaum is a very smart man."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "The Puppetmaster of Lodz."

Location: Storefront Theatre, Actors Alley at the El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends July 2.

Price: $15.

Call: (818) 508-4200.

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