Leni Riefenstahl was one of the great pioneers of film. Working in the silent era and in Germany between the two world wars, she made the textbook propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. In essence, she did what women directors in Hollywood have been trying to do for years: she made a film that became the toast of an entire country. And, she did it while treading carefully around a repressive Nazi regime.
Pulitzer finalist Jordan Harrison clearly sees a lot of resonance between Riefenstahl’s story and those of women and queer artists today. And, while, Amazons and Their Men, making its West Coast premiere in a production at Diversionary Theatre, never mentions Riefenstahl by name, clearly Mr. Harrison has appropriated some of her biography to imagine a “queer” version of it.
Mostly, both the appropriation and the queering work, serving to deconstruct both present-day filmmaking and the society in which the production system exists without leaving 1930s Germany. Unfortunately, it does so, albeit in an oddly-admiring fashion, at Ms. Riefenstahl’s expense.
The power dynamics play themselves out in the fevered style of silent film…
Which is probably why the play refers to her only as “Frau” (Kerry McCue). The play pretends to be based on snippets of film from Frau’s uncompleted opus, telling the story of Penthesilea, the final Queen of the Amazons. Frau is both directing and playing the lead, and she has assembled a cast that includes a man in her employ (John DeCarlo) as the male hero and a woman (Tiffany Tang) who plays many of the smaller roles – and, who has a relationship with Frau that complicates matters.
Injected into the filming, which progresses in fits and starts, is The Boy (Jewels Weinberg). The Boy has several functions. First, he delivers telegrams, the primary means of rapid communication. Mostly, these messages go between Frau and an unseen Nazi functionary who might mess with Frau’s art if he gets half a chance. But, Frau also recruits The Boy to perform in the film after noting that he is carrying on an affair with The Man.
The power dynamics play themselves out in the fevered style of silent film. Frau casts herself as Bitch Queen Auteur (to mix a metaphor), and she uses her status to get what she wants. But, even though the man is in a weak position, he is still a man, and a handsome one at that. Maleness counts for something, though gender identity issues waft through from time to time. The boy has youth on his side, as well as the fact that he is the human conduit between Frau and the one person who can undo her. And, the extra has her relationship with Frau, as well as a “specialty” in dying onscreen, to counter Frau’s tactics. But, Frau comes off as shrill and least dimensional of the four characters – and, I don’t think that’s at all the fault of Ms. McCue, whose performance is full of Frau’s contradictions.
Director Matt M. Morrow gets the depth of what Mr. Harrison is after, and his sharp production feels as layered as it needs be. He also encourages the cast to play the jokes, of which there are many. Ms. Tang, exhibits real strength from her position of weakness, and Mr. DeCarlo is fine in a difficult role. Mr. Weinberg looks his part but struggles more than the others to capture its nuances.
The production is technically difficult, and the creative team has responded with truly creative solutions. Those solutions are led by Curtis Mueller’s lighting design, which has to simulate film quite often, and Tara Knight’s projections, which capture the period look well. Kudos also to stage manager Charmaine Reed, for keeping the 75-minute, no intermission, show moving at just the right pace.
Mr. Morrow, Diversionary’s Executive Artistic Director, opens the first season he’s planned and makes his San Diego directing debut with this production. The upcoming season is as ambitious as its opening production. Bring your game face and prepare to be challenged, but also be grateful that Mr. Morrow has moved Diversionary’s quality bar by a lot.