(l to r) Julian Gibson, Lee Sellars and Joby Earle in The Puppetmaster of Lodz at the Unicorn Theatre of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, 2012. Photos by Chris Reis

Not all the victims of war are killed in action or injured in battle. Sometimes it is the sheer horrors of warfare that destroy men just as certainly and thoroughly as the bullets, minefields and bombs themselves. The main character Finkelbaum in The Puppetmaster of Lodzwas not a soldier but a survivor of both the horrific Lodz Ghetto, and the Chelmno Concentration Camp. Of the 230,000 Lodz Jews plus 25,000 others (most likely political prisoners, gays, and gypsies) only some 877 remained on January 19, 1945 when the Soviets liberated the death factory.

In the play, it appears that Finklebaum and another prisoner, Weissmann managed to flee shortly before the liberation and hid out from the Nazis. Driven into the safety of his imagination, Finklebaum preferred the alternate reality world of his puppets, all of which represented either other prisoners, or those he loved and were now dead. Alone in his room somewhere in Germany with paranoia nibbling at his brain, and the memories threatening to corrode it completely, he created an alternate reality in which he shunned all outsiders, and refused to believe that the war was over.

Today we call it by its polite clinical name, post traumatic stress disorder. What we witness on the stage of the Unicorn Theatre is how it plays out on a human being, and it certainly no comedy or drama. If anything it is a tragedy, in the Greek tradition, but not with those larger-than-life gods or heroes, but with a simple, fragile, broken human being.

Joby Earle plays Finkelbaum without self pity or complaint, instead expressing the few safe emotions he allows himself through his handmade puppets. One, which represents the woman who was the love of his life, is central to everything he does in the play, and ultimately his undoing. For while he can distinguish intellectually between his delusions and reality, emotionally he is unable to let go of his fantasy, for in so doing, he would complete the job the Nazis botched in killing him by destroying what is left of his human spirit.

Overall the play by Gilles Segal, translated by Sara O’Connor is a dark ride with a few dips into reality but no uplifting comedy. Not what you would consider summer fare. Under the direction of Brian Roff, Joby Earle as Finkebaum was kept busy cooking, arranging his main puppet, and constantly reworking a “grand” puppet show that will make his fame. He is frequently interrupted by his landlady “The Concierge” (Julia Gibson) and various characters dreamed up by her with Schwartzkopf (Jesse Hinson) to convince him the war is over. Of course, nothing works, they are dealing only with the symptoms, not the root cause.

Towards the end Weissmann (Lee Sellars) arrives, and it becomes clear that Finkelbaum can distinguish reality but clings for life to his alternate creation. Joby Earle’s acting is splendid throughout, with the full cast supporting the story until the last five or ten minutes when the two survivors have drinks, their voices drop, often becoming indistinct and slurred. I suspect the words didn’t matter that much at the end since the body language conveyed all an audience needs to know. But not being able to make out the final lines is frustrating. I feel like I don’t know how it ended. Then again director Roff seems to like plays with indeterminate endings. Last year’s Dutch Masters had problems being understood and ended vaguely as well.

The set was well designed by Jason Simms, the lights were simple, plain gelled, with one special for a closeup puppet sequence, and the sound design by Scott Kilian helped to establish the time and place. Emily DeCola was the puppet designer, and they were ultimately simple but effective. The costumes by Antonia Ford-Roberts were straightforward and functional.

Whether The Puppetmaster of Lodz is the right choice for a run in June-July and again in September-October is a good question. It would not be on my list of plays to take visitors to see, too dark, depressing and ultimately indecisive. But the Friday night I saw it, it got a solidly positive reception from the audience. Just why still escapes me.

Berkshire Theatre Group presents The Puppetmaster of Lodz by Gilles Segal translated by Sara O’Connor, directed by Brian Roff at the Unicorn Theatre of the Berkshire Theatre Festial, Stockbridge, MA. With Joby Earle, Julia Gibson,Jesse Hnson, Lee Sellars. About two hours twenty minutes including one intermission. June 21 to July 7, 2012 and September 13 to October 7, 2012.


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