The story of Hitler’s youth often gets overshadowed by his bloody WWII legacy, but the following is known: he began adulthood as a struggling, academically rejected artist in Vienna who was taken in by Jewish art dealers.
Scena Theater evokes this piece of forgotten history in their incendiary, darkly comic, yet uneven production of George Tabori’s Mein Kampf.
Tabori’s play centers on a Viennese flophouse where young Hitler meets two Jewish intellectuals: good natured writer Herzl, played by Stas Wronka, and his older friend Lobkowitz, played with wry humor by veteran Stephen Lorne Williams. Herzl, whom Wronka imbues with a likeable everyman quality, takes Hitler under his wing. As Herzl tries to groom the young artist to self sufficiency, his ward begins an insidious transformation from almost endearingly naive artist to familiar German boogeyman.
The play covers a lot of territory, including art, religion, love, and death, but the play’s most interesting theme is that of morality at the expense of self preservation. Early on, Herzl observes within Young Adolf many violent tendencies and disturbing thoughts about social order, particularly in reference to Jews. However, even as his apprehension grows, he cannot overcome an instinctive urge to help the angry young man.
Even when the universe appears to present Herzl with a Deus ex machina solution to Hitler’s growing sociopathic tendencies, the Jewish writer’s moral compass wins out and he chooses to save the future dictator from his fate. It’s impossible for Herzl to foresee Adolf’s ruinous future deeds, but their fraught relationship presses the concept that not every wayward soul or sinner can be saved, nor perhaps should they be.
As Hitler, Cameron McNary provides a riveting focal point, disrupting the calm atmosphere of the flophouse with childish tantrums, genocidal sentiment, and white hot jets of rage. McNary drives the action of the play with crackling energy and mesmerizing mood swings; puzzlingly, however, he spends much of the play offstage or behind a closed door. In fact, the play might more accurately be called “Fleeting Glimpses of the Fascist as a Young Man”.
In Hitler’s absence, the bulk of the narrative falls to Herzl, who fills the time with lengthy philosophical musings and conversations with the supporting cast. While these exchanges offer some tangential insights into the central conflict, they often devolve into thickly accented rambling. While the intent is pure, these scenes cloud the strongest narrative with secondary characters and plot lines, robbing the play of its most riveting figure for lengthy stretches and sending the energy into a nosedive. A better scene balance, with increased focus upon the engrossing, conflicted relationship between Herzl and his pupil, would vastly improve the flow of the entire production.
The supporting cast works hard to enliven the downtime, highlighted by a yeoman-like effort from Joseph Carlson in the role of the sadistic, bug-eyed “Himmlisch”/Himmler. The costumes are lovingly crafted, and the visual and sound design smoothly transform the stage from flophouse to nightmare kitchen to battlefield. The production boasts talent and audacious creativity; it’s just a shame it is tarnished by uneven action and long absences of the most interesting character. This may very well be the first and only time that the phrase “Needs more Hitler” seems appropriate.
Scene Theater’s production of Mein Kampf, which opens within the Fringe festival, continues its run thru Aug 19, 2012 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
Mein Kampf: A Portrait of the Fascist as a Young Man
Written by George Tabori
Directed by Robert McNamara
Produced by Scena Theater
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Running Time: 2 hours (10 minute intermission)