by Adam Brinklow, EDGE Media Network Contributor. Sunday, Mar 19, 2017
In "Leni" at the Aurora Theater, Leni Riefenstahl dies and goes straight to a movie set. Of course.
The real Riefenstahl expired in 2003 at the age of 101, still trying to direct new movies almost until the moment of her death.
But after World War II her associations with the Nazis as the director of 1935's "Triumph of the Will" meant she never made a film again.
So be it heaven, hell, or purgatory, Riefenstahl ending up on set postmortem in this play by Sarah Greenman and directed by Jon Tracy seems as inevitable as death itself.
In this case Stacy Ross (from Cal Shakes' "Much Ado" and Custom Made's "The Thrush and the Woodpecker" last year) is Riefenstahl, looking and sounding her weary virtuoso best.
Putting everything else aside, it's enormously pleasing watching Ross slip into being Riefenstahl and then take charge of a film set like a duck to... well, not even a duck to water, but more just a duck to being a duck.
The movie Riefenstahl directs in the afterlife turns out to be her own life, starring a younger version of herself (Margaret Brigham from Aurora's "The How and the Why").
That's the plan, anyway; younger Leni turns out to have ideas of her own about what happened in Berlin and Nuremberg all those years ago, and about how Riefenstahl should be remembered.
Brigham appears particularly fierce playing her meetings with Hitler (portrayed onstage by no one at all, though he does appear fleetingly and chillingly in movie footage), brusque and powerful and often talking to the Fuhrer like a peer when she gets in the zone.
Nearly 70 years of recrimination have worn Ross' older Leni into a kind of nub of her original self, but she's still bristling with extremely 20th-century artistic sensibilities and brandishes her auteur status as a shield against recriminations.
The real Riefenstahl was a brilliant artist, and as a woman working in a field of prehistorically minded men (they were real fascists, after all), her example would be profound and heroic.
Except of course that she was a Nazi. Not officially -- she never joined the party and later denied having any political opinions at all -- but it's hard not to see the fingerprints of the movement on her movies now.
How to decipher the puzzle of such a legacy, "Leni" asks?
In truth though, most people will probably not find this question as hard to answer as the play does.
More than likely , audience members will either feel that the art stands on its own merits regardless of the context of when it was made or else they'll find Riefenstahl's movies fascist in their own right and dismiss them as propaganda, however well crafted.
Neither party is likely to take very long coming to a conclusion, and "Leni" doesn't offer much to change anyone's mind.
On paper, Riefenstahl should be a complex, fraught and fascinating figure (here played by not one but two remarkable actors to boot), but that doesn't seem to be the case in practice. Maybe her life -- or her life after Hitler, at least -- just isn't interesting enough.
There are of course some moments of chilling topicality here, like Hitler railing about the liberal media setting him up, that provoked anxious laughter. And footage from "Olympia" and "Triumph of the Will" remains as arresting as ever.
But "Leni" herself never engages the way her movies did.
"Leni" plays through May 7 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., in Berkeley. For tickets and information, call 510-843-4822 or visit AuroraTheatre.org