Among other things, Leni Riefenstahl—the German filmmaker who cooperated with Nazi propagandists—could be called a queen of denial. How and when does an artist’s narcissism—or, at least, the hermetic pursuit of beauty—become accomplice to a murderous regime?
Amazons and Their Men, Jordan Harrison’s new play (produced by Clubbed Thumb), invokes these tantalizing questions but prefers coyness to dark answers. Riefenstahl is named as an inspiration in the program, but is not an official character. Her unmistakable stand-in is the Frau (Rebecca Wisocky), a blonde Berliner as imperious as she is beautiful. A film visionary, the Frau obsessively pursues her cinematic masterpiece: a screen adaptation of Penthesilea, Heinrich von Kleist’s famous Romantic drama about the Amazon queen’s love for her foe Achilles.
On her set, the Frau demands to see heightened beauty, glistening tears, and Adonis-like bodies quivering with desire. She goads her terrified actors into melodramatic perfection and devises ingenious camera techniques despite being strapped for cash. In her overheating zeal, the Frau also cuts deals with her shadowy Nazi contacts, eventually acquiescing to their requests for support. In time, she becomes the regime’s star propaganda-maker—selling her soul to get planes to Egypt for a great location shoot, and even contemplating the sacrifice of actors vulnerable because of their secret ethnic and sexual identities.
Amazons cleverly jump-cuts between scenes on- and off-camera, a device that director Ken Rus Schmoll manipulates to create a growing sense of urgency. (For my money, Schmoll now makes one of the sharpest new-play interpreters out there.) In the best scenes—fulfilled by Schmoll’s taut staging and a sprightly cast—correspondences between private lives and filmed personas resonate with irony and demonstrate the playwright’s penchant for pastiche; The Frau and the Amazon queen share the same fate, falling for foes.
But the theatrical energy arising from this constant on/off interplay never finds any place to discharge. At midpoint, Harrison bizarrely steers the narrative away from the psychologies of art and fascism and instead overplays a gay subplot, outing characters hither and yon while relying on a cutesy narrator figure called the Extra (gamely played by Heidi Schreck).
Concluding with a campy deathbed finale, Amazons ends up being another play about playmaking and divadom, when it could have had something more surprising to say about the function of art when surrounded by unmitigated evil. Given the play’s intelligent foundations, that resolution feels like another kind of denial.