Leni Riefenstahl was one of the most talented and enigmatic filmmakers of the 20th century. She was handpicked by Adolf Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, to film the National Socialist rally at Nuremberg in 1934, and the result, Triumph of the Will, was regarded as a documentary masterpiece as well as a center of controversy her whole life long—and long it was. She died at 101 in 2003. Critics accused her of being a Nazi or at least a criminally naïve filmmaker. Riefenstahl was still eloquently defending her work at 99 in the documentary The Immoderation of Me, insisting that the lack of any narration in the film made it merely a documentary record and not propaganda.
One of Riefenstahl’s unrealized projects was a screenplay based on Heinrich Kleist’s 1808 drama Penthesilea that she was to direct and star in. The heroine is an Amazon queen who leads her one-breasted tribe of women to the Trojan War, where she falls in love with Achilles. Riefenstahl wrote 34 scenes for the film, but it was abandoned when war broke on out Sept. 1, 1939. The screenplay was lost, although her notes survive.
Jordan Harrison’s Amazons and Their Men takes the Kleist project as a jumping-off point to mull the demands of talent on the artist in private and public arenas. His script specifies that some facts are drawn from Riefenstahl’s life, but that the character is not the director. However, if the Frau—a woman famous for her filmmaking abilities and her ties to the Party—is not Riefenstahl, the facts of her career that creep through insist that she is. The film of Penthesilea was a Riefenstahl project, not anyone else’s, and the Frau’s ties to the Party are an unmistakable parallel to Riefenstahl’s.
Ken Rus Schmoll’s production uses a virtually bare stage with only a movable dais and a club chair for scenery. He employs lighting by Garin Marschall and sound by Leah Gelpe effectively, as film scenes are replayed with their titles projected, and the appearance of the Propaganda Minister in silhouette far upstage is superbly sinister. But the sequence of filmic scenes that are interspersed with those about the characters’ relations offstage fluctuate wildly in tone, disorienting the viewer and inhibiting one's response to the material. Schmoll hasn't attempted to address the awkwardness in the script.
The chief irritant is Rebecca Wisocky as the melodramatically wide-eyed Frau. As she stalks the set, she looks like Norma Desmond in a tunic. Riefenstahl, in the 1920s “mountain” films of Arnold Fanck, was not so mannered, and the representation of the Frau as a megalomaniac star and a despotic Teutonic director (she’s always yelling “Cut!”), like von Erich von Stroheim, Otto Preminger and Fritz Lang, feels like parody run amok. But how does one then respond to her unrequited love for her Achilles offstage and her attempt to withstand the Party's pressure. "They will try to make it a film about war, not a film about love," she tells a bewildered extra, who responds with one of the funniest comments in the play: "You are making a film about love?”
The other performers are more human. The Actor (the strapping and wholesome Brian Sgambati is Achilles) is both Jewish and gay, and he is in love with a Gypsy messenger boy (Gio Perez) that the Frau has cast as Patroclus. The Frau, whose offstage smoking of a cigar looks like a signal of liberalism, nonetheless brands their attraction as a violation of God’s design, and ultimately betrays her costar. (Riefenstahl, incidentally, refused to discuss her religion, period.)
The fourth character is the Extra (Heidi Schreck), who takes on a succession of nameless Amazons and is the Frau’s lesbian sister. Riefenstahl didn’t have such a sister, but Kleist’s sister Ulrike traveled in men’s clothes and wore them on occasion even when she wasn’t on the road. The revelation of the family relationship between the Frau and the Extra echoes the concealed history between Norma and her butler (played by von Stroheim) in Sunset Boulevard.
At times Amazons is a meditation on an artist so consumed by her art that she cannot be bothered with what is going on in the world around her. At other moments, especially in the heartfelt tenderness between the Actor and the Boy, and in the quiet confrontation between the Actor and the Extra in which he recognizes her as a fellow sexual outlaw, it promotes a touching advocacy of gay rights. But the way Harrison mingles bits and pieces of truth with fictional references is disorienting and frustrating, as is the schizophrenic seesawing between drama and burlesque. And in the crucial picture of the Frau, it fails to deliver honesty or credibility that might justify appropriating the facts of a great artist's life for the playwright's own attempt at creating art.