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The Puppetmaster of Lodz
Blue Heron Theatre and Mirth A Theatre Company's production is directed by Bruce Levitt and features puppets by Ralph Lee and a functional and evocative set designed by Roman Tatarowicz. One has the feeling it is the framework created by Levitt, Lee and Tatarowicz that provides the support which makes the actors' performance so powerful.
The Puppetmaster of Lodz is set in Berlin in 1950. Samuel Finkelbaum (Robert Zukerman) is a former puppeteer who lives in a locked attic with his puppets and the memories that haunt him. His concierge (the lovable and believable Suzanne Toren), who may or may not realize that the wife Finkelbaum constantly talks to is actually a puppet, brings him the food that sustains him and the news that the war is over. He accepts the food but refuses to believe that he is safe and can come out of hiding.
The concierge brings various people to Finkelbaum's door in the hope that they will convince him to leave his room: a Russian soldier, an American soldier, a fellow Jew, a doctor for his ailing "wife," all played by the excellent Daniel Damiano. They cajole, promise and let Finkelbaum inspect them through the keyhole.
The interchange between the men on either side of the door is often quite funny, as Finkelbaum provides numerous reasons to doubt his visitors' honesty. But in the end, the puppeteer always returns to the creatures he has created, particularly his beloved wife, a life-sized puppet named Ruchele.
Finkelbaum, who escaped from a Nazi concentration camp with a fellow prisoner years ago, plans to tell not only his personal life story, but the story of all the Nazi's victims. As he speaks to the mute Ruchele, it becomes apparent, that the puppeteer, who no longer believes in God, has given himself Godlike powers over his puppets. If he cannot control his own fate, he can at least control theirs.
The play is not only a portrait of a man struggling with his past; it is also something of a mystery. As the plot unwinds, the concierge comes to question whether Finkelbaum really is the man she thought he was—, whether he escaped from a concentration camp, and whether he really is a Jew. Zukerman's performance as a philosopher, an artist, a survivor and a man grieving for his dead wife and child is a veritable tour de force.
The Puppetmaster of Lodz creates a brilliant balance between Finkelbaum's fantasy world that he has created in his attic refuge and the real world on the other side of the door. The concierge keeps intruding with her witnesses, her newspapers and her entreaties. But for Finkelbaum, the fantasies he lives in are far more real than what the concierge is offering.
In fact, by the end of the play, it seems that fantasy and reality may not be so different after all. The German's created illusions to fool their victims. The war may be over between the belligerent nations, but it has left its victims permanently scarred. As fantasy and reality merge, it becomes apparent that sometimes it is only through denial and escape into another world that human beings can survive.
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