The private world of Samuel Finkelbaum is both a purgatory and a haven, a tragic and tender place brought to life in exquisite detail by the Blue Heron Theatre and the Mirth A Theatre Company. In their bitterly humorous production of The Puppetmaster of Lodz , by Gilles Ségal, the presence of the minutiae of daily life and the performance of household rituals make the lives of the Holocaust victims immediately tangible. However, rather than simply elicit shock and sympathy, Gilles Ségal’s clever structure and the cast’s solid performances present a complex meditation on the unique guilt of a “survivor." It is a testament to the strength of Ségal’s writing and of Robert Zukerman’s nuanced performance that Finkelbaum can be seen as both exceptional and representative—the survivor whose life is proof. Within Finkelbaum’s apartment, his day is composed of normal activities, performed for the audience in real time. There is something cozy and hypnotic about the execution of familiar tasks, and about the uncomplicated dialogue between two people in love. The audience soon discovers that the dialogue is only a wistful monologue that Finkelbaum speaks to a puppet. His world is anything but normal. This is Berlin in 1950, and outside his apartment great changes are happening. At least, that is what those on the other side say. Throughout the play, the building’s concierge (played by Suzanne Toren) tries to convince Finkelbaum, a Holocaust survivor, that the war has ended. However, as someone who knows the cruel fate of those who blindly believed, Finkelbaum resists her explanations and refuses to leave.
Zukerman is nothing short of astonishing as he follows the manic turns of Finkelbaum’s monologue. With his skilled performance, the Puppetmaster’s seeming insanity is at once charming, funny, and deeply sad. There is never a moment when his humorous lines alleviate the sadness or guilt of his life, and the viewing experience is appropriately uneasy. As a puppet master, Finkelbaum is at his happiest and most entertaining when he is composing his grand show: “The Tragicomic Life of Samuel Finkelbaum." In this performance within a performance, Zukerman’s comedic talents range from hilarious slapstick to bitter satire. Ralph Lee has designed a varied cast of eerily human puppets to star in Finkelbaum’s show. Throughout the play, Zukerman manipulates these forms with haunting dedication. In particular, the reenactments of crimes committed in the camps are scenes of horrifically wanton destruction.
As the concierge, Suzanne Toren shifts between the morbid curiosity and tentative guilt of an average citizen. With stubborn insistence, she presents what she believes to be credible witnesses to the American and Russian occupation of Berlin. That these witnesses (all played with entertaining variation and pitch-perfect accents by Daniel Damiano) recall the puppets Finkelbaum uses to fill his life and tell his story, cleverly demonstrates that stories are being told on both sides of the keyhole.
The distance between the inside and outside of the apartment appears to be an unbridgeable gap until Finkelbaum’s companion in escape makes a sudden appearance. Schwartzkopf, played by Herbert Rubens, is a calm and commanding presence, unlike his wild and distrustful friend. Their very real affection is a heartwarming change from the previous scenes with puppets. But the heartwarming interlude quickly turns heart wrenching. Though Finkelbaum has lived, he has not escaped, and the world holds nothing for him. After the reunion, he holds his real friend and his imaginary wife, and laments the fact that he is unable to go mad.
The cataclysmic horror of the Holocaust is emphasized by the complicated set and lighting designs of Roman Tatarowicz and Paul Bartlett, respectively. Because Finkelbaum moves through a cozily cluttered apartment and performs the routines of any man, his life assumes a familiarity that contrasts with the singularity of his past and present. The faithful recreation of a lived-in apartment is achieved with the detailed set and the wonderful lighting design. The small overhead light in Finkelbaum’s apartment casts a consistently homey glow. In the play’s grotesque moments, the light turns greenish, Finkelbaum’s complexion appears sickly, and the room becomes unfamiliar. It is clear that he will always be alternating like this between darkness and light, and that for him the war will never be over.
The play’s power is timeless in a very disturbing way. As the playwright points out, the human world is always the home of horrors, whether cataclysmic or comparatively small. The crimes of men against men are constantly renewing themselves. Perhaps, then, it is not so crazy to live in constant disbelief. The Puppetmaster of Lodz is not a self-contained story, but part of a narrative of human history that continues to this day and demonstrates that it is not Finkelbaum who is mad, but the world on the other side of his keyhole.