By Patrick Thomas

Stacy Ross and Martha Brigham
Photo by David Allen
It has been said that art is a cruel mistress. The starving artist is a cliché because it's true: very few people who devote their lives to art end up making a living by painting or writing or composing music or making films. To support their work, some artists seek patrons or commissions. Which can be fine—unless your patron turns out to be one of history's greatest criminals and you end up fatally tarred by his sponsorship. Such is the case for Leni Riefenstahl, a polymath artist (actor, dancer, writer, director) who came to the attention of Adolf Hitler, who commissioned her two greatest films, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, documentaries that chronicled the events of the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg and the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Though the films were visually stunning, incorporating many innovations in film technique and establishing an aesthetic that would be much-copied in decades to come, their propagandistic nature (and the horrors their sponsor would soon commit) doomed any hope of a post-war career for the talented Ms. Riefenstahl.


In Leni, currently playing at Harry's Upstage in the Dashow Wing of the Aurora Theatre Company, is a cunningly crafted look at the life and passions of the woman who created what has been called "the greatest propaganda film of all time." Playwright Sarah Greenman and director Jon Tracy have done remarkable work here, creating a theatrical experience rife with drama and political and emotional tension. Greenman especially is to be complimented for the imaginative, cogent and organic way she presents this complex character, who is represented at two stages of her life by two women. Stacy Ross plays Helene, the older Leni, and Martha Brigham takes the role of Leni, the incarnation of her younger self.

We first meet Helene as a silhouette behind a window in an office (in a marvelous set by Nina Ball) on a soundstage. When she emerges from the door, she treads quietly, tentatively, tapping the floor with her foot as though it were a frozen-over pond with ice of questionable thickness. She notes the audience carefully, examining each one of our 54 faces (Harry's Upstage is a very intimate environment) as though confused as to why we are all with her in her afterlife. But an audience is an audience, and Helene invites us to watch her work on the set—as long as we stay silent.

Soon we will meet Leni, whom the older Helene will film as she relates the story of her life. But a simple, nostalgic view is not what Greenman was after in telling the complex tale of Riefenstahl's life. The action plays out as on a movie set, with Helene directing the action—but occasionally taking over the lead role, so that she can tell the story from her point of view.

It's this elegant shifting of perspective that makes Leni so compelling. Helene has the perspective of age, looking back over her 101-year life with the benefit of hindsight. She knows what went on in the years after her successes in the 1930s. Yet she also suffers from the very human condition of selective memory—she sometimes remembers things how she wanted them to be and not as they actually were. Stacy Ross is marvelous in this role, especially in her physicality. She embodies both fierceness and fragility, as well as a (to her) righteous indignation that her art was overlooked because of who paid for it. "Is it a sin that Hitler admired me?" she asks.

As Leni, Martha Brigham is nearly the equal of Ms. Ross. Though the accent she adopts (British, oddly) feels forced at times, she does excellent work embodying the ambition and focus of the artist as a young woman. And because the playwright has established her as the young Leni, the Leni of 1936, the Leni passionate to finish Olympia, her character is innocent of the horrors to come, obsessed only with the work still to be done. There is a moment, when her character is watching (along with the audience, for portions of her two greatest films are projected on large screens) the opening scene from Olympia, that is both heartrending and chilling. The footage depicts the journey of the Olympic flame from Greece to Berlin, and when the text "Deutschland" appears on the screen, there is a lovely, emotional catch in Leni's voice that tells you all you need to know about where her loyalties lie.

Leni Riefenstahl made films of tremendous beauty and power—but in the service of a horrific tyrant. Sarah Greenman, however, has created a play of beauty and power that, in 75 intermission-less minutes, does us the service of presenting a clear-eyed, potent representation of an artist's obsession—and its resonance across decades.

Leni runs through May 7, 2017, at Harry's Upstage at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesday at 7:00 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00p.m. Tickets are $45-55. Tickets and additional information are available at www.auroratheatre.org or by calling 510-843-4822.