The Red Dress
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Argyle Road Productions
Through November 19
Playwright Tania Wisbar is the daughter of a German father and a Jewish mother, both of whom were prominent members of the German film world in the 1930s. But when she was just six months old, her parents divorced, and she and her mother fled German to escape the growing Nazi threat. Her mother never talked to her about life in Germany, except in the most impersonal terms, so she was ignorant of her family history. It was only in 1999 that an 88-page document by her mother was discovered, detailing the end of her marriage and the Nazification of the German film industry. That account, with its harrowing details, provided the basis for this play, a fictionalized semi-biography.
The play begins in 1924, when the German nation was still suffering from the poverty, inflation, and hardships imposed by the punitive provisions of the 1918 peace treaty. Alexandra Schiele (Laura Liguori) is a famous movie star, whose blonde beauty has made her the face of Germany. In a café run by her friend Sybil (Rebecca Larsen), Alexandra meets Franz Weitrek (J.B. Waterman), an impoverished World War I veteran who is making his meager living as a sketch artist in the café, though his ambition is to work in film. Alexandra is smitten with him, and sets to work using her connections and influence to help him find work in the film studios. And they are soon married.
Weitrek had been a simple villager with no expectations, but with Alexandra’s help, he begins to achieve prominence in the film world. And as Nazi influence over the industry grows, he finds favor with party officials, including Propaganda Minister Herman Goebbels. He obtains financing for a successful film and is soon offered a job overseeing all German newsreels.
Alexandra hates and fears the Nazis and all they stand for and wants to leave the country, but Weitrek owes his career to Nazi patronage, so there is a growing rift in their marriage. But she passionately wants a child, and in due time becomes pregnant. There is to be a major ceremony in which Weitrek will be honored for his contributions to German film. Alexandra does not want to attend, but when Weitrek pressures her, she decides to go — but in an act of defiance, she ignores the Nazi dress code, which requires black gowns for the ladies, and turns up in a flashy red dress. Like Bette Davis in Jezebel, she’s defying social mores — but in Germany in the 1930s, this is dangerous business. She’s immediately detained by Nazi officers, who have discovered that she had a Jewish grandmother, which makes her 1/8 Jewish, and thus a member of the “polluted” race. Nazi eugenics and the Nuremberg Laws, which prohibit marriage (much less procreation) between Aryans and Jews, make their marriage a criminal offense.
The Party apparatchik who controls her fate is Officer Dieter Keller (Dylan Wittrock), who idolized Alexandra in his youth, and once had a brief meeting with her. He is mortally offended because while the meeting was a high point in his life, she does not even remember it. He’s eager to punish and humiliate her. He demands that Weitrek divorce her, and she must abort their child and face compulsory sterilization. Weitreck must strive to save her from this fate.
Wisbar has written a heartfelt account, which evokes memories of The Jewish Wife sequence of Bertolt Brecht’s Fears and Miseries of the Third Reich (aka The Private Life of the Master Race). Director Kiff Scholl gives it a handsome and effective production, with an able cast. Liguori never quite achieves the kind of authority one might expect from a major movie star, but she is appealing and effective. Waterman sketches a telling portrait of a craven man who finally abandons his ethics to preserve his career. Wittrock vividly suggests the vengeful sadism of a man whose pride has been stepped on. And Rebecca Larsen and Shanti Reinhardt do fine work in supporting roles.
Pete Hickok designed the several evocative sets, while Shon LeBlanc supplied the authentic-looking costumes. Projection designer Nick Santiago is responsible for the rich historical images in the pre-show slide show, which feature political posters from that era and gritty photos of World War I.
Argyle Road Productions at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. (323) 960-5521 or www.Plays411.com/reddress. Running time: One hour and 50 minutes with one 15-minute intermissIon.