THEATER REVIEW: “Leni” @ Bridge Street Theatre [Berkshire On Stage]

Olivia Howell as Leni, Roxanne Fay as Helene
Olivia Howell as Leni, Roxanne Fay as Helene

Review by Barbara Waldinger

For the past four years, Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill has laudably dared to present challenging plays with highly controversial central characters. Following up on last year’s depiction, in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the Moon Marigolds, of a mother whose verbal and emotional abuse threatens to destroy her children, Roxanne Fay returns to portray Leni Riefenstahl, the brilliant filmmaker denounced in the aftermath of World War II as a Nazi sympathizer. Both of her famous documentaries – “Triumph of the Will” (1935), showing a 1934 Nazi Party Rally, and “Olympia” (1938), capturing the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin – glorify Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist vision.

Leni, a play by Sarah Greenman, is a two-hander, pitting a young Leni (Olivia Howell) against her older self (Ms. Fay). In his pre-show talk, dramaturg Steven Patterson explains the conceit of the play, which imagines a “purgatory-like soundstage,” on which Riefenstahl supposedly films her own biography. Although we can glean from the set (designed with great detail by director John Sowle), filled with furniture, props and lighting instruments, and the comments directed by Leni to Horst, her off-stage cameraman, that Leni is in the process of filming, the script does not make clear either where we are or what is being filmed. Riefenstahl did not, in fact, film her autobiography though she did publish a 1987 memoir and cooperated in a production of the documentary, “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.” Greenman, who saw that film, has imagined that the narcissistic Riefenstahl would have created a film about herself had she been permitted to do so.

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