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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Aunt Raini
Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule


Michael Torsch and Dan Hopman
Photo by Sarah Whiting
There is nothing new in the proposition that great art and politics are not mutually exclusive. There are innumerable examples of superior works of art that strongly convey controversial political positions. Just to offer a few examples, there is Jean Sibelius' tone poem "Finlandia," Pablo Picasso's epic painting "Guernica", and such novels as Boris Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago" and Graham Greene's "The Quiet American." In film, one could cite the work of Leni Riefenstahl, who documented the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the films Triumph of the Will and Olympia. However, because those films depict the fervor with which Nazism was embraced by its adherents and portray Adolf Hitler as the all-powerful, idolized leader he was, they have been widely condemned as propaganda rather than praised as art. At what point is the line between political work and propaganda crossed? Does crossing that line negate the work's value as art?

These questions are raised with passion and intelligence in Aunt Raini, a new play by Tom Smith being given its first professional production by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. A fictional scenario around the end of Riefenstahl's life provides the forum for this debate to be aired. The play succeeds to a large degree In this strong production directed by Kurt Schweickhardt. However, the narrative takes on the additional issue of the fragility of trust between two people who claim to love one another, perhaps too much weight for the drama to fully support.

We meet Katherine, a successful New York art gallery owner, age somewhere her thirties, with her elderly Aunt Raini, visiting from Germany. Raini, who is childless, took Katherine in during her teenage years after her mother was killed in a tragic accident and her father was no longer part of her life, for reasons that become known in the course of the play. Each is the only family the other has, making theirs a strong bond. Raini has led a full life as a filmmaker, photographer, and world traveler. She is also highly opinionated and blunt to the extreme. With nothing but scorn for the Lipton tea Katherine offers her, when Katherine suggests adding sugar or milk, Raini declines, asking "why disguise the ugly truth?" a joke that ends up being fairly prescient.

Katherine is about to move in with her boyfriend Joel. He too is a photographer, whose recently published collection of work is composed of photos of Cabalistic Jews superimposed on modern backgrounds in contrast to the ancient traditions of Cabalism. Joel teaches at a community college, as he says, to pay the bills, prompting Raini to demand which he is, artist or teacher? When Joel says he is both, she admonishes "than you are neither!" Joel engages gamely in Raini's sharp-edged arguments until a medical emergency allows Joel to discover her real identity: Leni Riefenstahl. Joel, as a Jew (albeit, fairly non-observant) rails against "Aunt Raini's" contribution to the murder of six million of those he calls "my people, my shtetl." He is just as incensed that Katherine had kept this incredible fact from him. It turns out Katherine has kept other secrets as well.

It is those other secrets that make the play feel overly ambitious, or perhaps reveal a lack of the confidence in the central conflict. It would be enough to deal with the legacy of Leni Riefenstahl, and the unresolved question of how one evaluates her creative output. Is it great art to be revered, or propaganda that fueled a holocaust, to be reviled? Is there a way for it to be both? The argument is extended with the arrival of Horst, Riefenstahl's true-life companion of 35 years, who hurries to New York from Germany with news of the crisis. He glowingly describes Riefenstahl as an artist, the context in which he has loved her, in contrast to the image of a monster imbedded in Joel's mind. Katherine is caught in the middle, dearly loving her aunt, who cared for her when there was no one else, though aware of the condemnation the world has heaped on her.

Why, then, does the playwright need to also make Katherine the victim of a childhood betrayal, still struggling with past demons totally apart from the question of her aunt? Yes, Katherine's turbulent past builds a case for the trust issues that kept her from being honest with Joel. Still, in making the challenge of coping with the painful truth about her aunt exacerbated by so much other baggage, the more universal story of how any one of us might cope with that same situation is obscured.

And yet, Smith does well in devising a forum for the examination of the artist's responsibility for events that may be inspired by their art. When Joel insists the images in Triumph of the Will and Olympia go beyond the documentary form because they depict rabid adoration for Hitler, making him appear god-like, Riefenstahl's response is that was how the crowd felt. She captured not only the action, but the emotions of the moment, and asks if this does not represent great skill and artistry, rather than propaganda. Some of the dialogue is searing, especially in the second act when Joel and Horst go toe to toe.

Schweickhardt's direction keeps the drama at a constantly rising level, with fluid transitions between scenes that allow for no let up. Michael Hoover has designed a stylish Manhattan apartment living room, with the requisite stacks of books and display of art, along with the cool anonymity that assures us other lives will pass through these rooms. Liz Josheff Busa's costumes are all in keeping with each character's persona, while Kathy Maxwell's lighting design draws focus and marks the passing of the hours.

The four performances are all terrific, raising the heat on stage so that the arguments always feel emotionally compelling, never dryly intellectual. Maggie Bearmon Pistner as Raini sets the bar high, her imperious demeanor and unbowed rationalization for her life's work completely convincing. She also handles the necessary German accent with aplomb. Heidi Fellner is a striking Katherine, confident in her outward life, but a time bomb of kept secrets and unresolved pain. As Joel, Michael Torsch is the epitome of a struggling artist, flush with having climbed to the first rung of success. He makes visible the combustion of his emotions as the evil he associates with Katherine's aunt overwhelms his tenderness for Katherine. Dan Hopman has the smallest role as Horst, but he etches a strong portrait of a man who knows he has loved a woman the world judges as a devil, and has made peace with that, won over by her brilliance and exuberance for life.

Aunt Raini is without question a welcome new play. It addresses issues not only of historic interest, but continue to be relevant every time a work of art appears to push the line too far, breached a boundary for what art is permitted and not permitted to express. It will be of great interest to see how Aunt Raini evolves as it move on to stages in other cities, for it certainly deserves a long future life.

Aunt Rainicontinues through November 20, 2016, at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Tickets: $34.00 - $20.00; Student Rush tickets - $12.00). For tickets call 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.

Written by Tom Smith; Director: Kurt Schweickhardt; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Liz Josheff Busa; Lighting Design: Kathy Maxwell; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Properties Design: Robert J. Smith; Stage manager: Samson Perry

Cast: Heidi Fellner (Katherine), Dan Hopman (Horst), Maggie Bearmon Pistner (Raini), Michael Torsch (Joel).


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