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The Imaginary, All-True Leni Riefenstahl Show

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Genius. Pioneer. Nazi sympathizer?

Describe Leni Riefenstahl however you will, but don't ignore her: That's the message dripping from Jen Ryan's new play, The Imaginary All-True Leni Riefenstahl Show, playing as part of the Fringe Festival. Exactly how history will judge Riefenstahl won't be known for many years, but anyone interested in her story would do well to take in this show and be exposed to its quirky but clear-eyed point of view about one of the 20th century's most controversial women.

Authored with Craig O'Connor, with dramaturgy and additional material by Leonard Jacobs, the show is an irreverent look at the life of Riefenstahl (1902-2003), known as much for her thrillingly innovative filmmaking techniques as for her connections to Adolf Hitler and Germany's National Socialist Party. The play can't - and doesn't attempt to - avoid the circumstances surrounding the creation of her landmark films Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), which documented a Nuremberg political rally and was appropriated for Nazi propaganda purposes, or Olympia, which painstakingly documented the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the glory and beauty of its participants.

Ryan and her collaborators see these as only pieces of a more fascinating whole. Less familiar aspects of Riefenstahl's life - from her early career as a dancer through her brief but torrid love affair with filmmaking to her later career as a photographer and her decades-long romantic affair with a man over 40 years her junior - play an equally important role in defining a complicated woman who led, by any standard, a remarkable life. Ryan is careful, though, never to sentimentalize Riefenstahl or apologize for her; Ryan presents the information, but leaves the interpretation to the observer.

This is all handled in a highly theatrical and almost improvisatory manner, with Ryan portraying Riefenstahl, and actor Rik Sansone playing everyone else. (His characterizations number over two dozen and include luminaries like Joseph Goebbels, Clark Gable, and even Marlene Dietrich.) As semi-biographical scenes from Riefenstahl's life are supplemented - or intercut, if you will - with discussions from the actors (playing themselves) about the material they're performing, this fills the show with plenty of zany informal fun, as well as a context for exploring the way Riefenstahl is viewed and treated today.

That's obviously Ryan's main intent with the play, but she establishes early on that she'll get there by any means necessary. One can understand, for example, Sansone's reluctance to play Hitler; Ryan's solution for depicting "the elephant in the room" is nothing short of comic genius. Other sequences push a bit too hard, with Laugh-In, Match Game, and reality TV parodies that fizzle rather than spark. Still, even the less successful moments contribute to an atmosphere in which anything can happen, and frequently seems to, and Ryan and Sansone are both terrific in everything they do onstage.

Credited as the play's director is "Franz Liebkind," recognizable to most as the playwright of Springtime for Hitler in both the stage and film versions of Mel Brooks's The Producers; whoever is actually responsible for guiding and shaping this production deserves praise for his or her fine, fluid work. The lighting design (Shannon Mulligan) and sound design (Ron St. John and Beth Bier) are also key in keeping the production on track as a notably cinematic theatre experience.

It's only during some of the scene and costume changes that the pace lags; the lack of space in the Cherry Lane Theatre Studio and the often intrusive arrangement of some of the set pieces (no scenic designer is credited) no doubt play a role. Additionally, a number of technical glitches plagued the opening-night performance, most related to the extensive and apparently complicated projection scheme (designed and operated by Brendan Roche); these will likely be ironed out as the show continues its run.

This all makes The Imaginary, All-True Leni Riefenstahl Show a highly ambitious achievement that's been impressively realized here. Even if this expansive, fractured biography fails to convince you of the importance of Riefenstahl's contributions to film and the world, Ryan certainly makes a creative and compelling case. She even states in her program biography that she's been trying to adapt Riefenstahl's story for ten years, and judging by the results here, that time has been well spent.

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New York International Fringe Festival
The Imaginary, All-True Leni Riefenstahl Show
Through August 29
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
The Studio at Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4488