The Puppetmaster of Lodz
Finkelbaum has lost his wife, baby and friends. He lives on while refusing to acknowledge that the second world war has ended, through puppets designed by Emily DeCola. Julia Gibson plays The Concierge, a woman kind enough to bring Finkelbaum food and provisions as she tries to convince the protagonist that he may venture, safely, from the reclusive space. She brings along someone named Weissmann (Lee Sellars) who takes on different personas. The idea is to entice/lure Finkel and release him. Yet, Finkelbaum will only stoop and peer through a keyhole as he desires to remain just where he is. When Schwartzkopf (Jesse Hinson), one of Finkelbaum's true friends from the concentration camp, finally appears, the through line of Puppetmaster shifts.
Within his own metaphorical world, though, Finkelbaum does not mourn. He feels as if his large puppet, which he treats as if it is human, really does represent his beloved Rachel. He is affectionate with every touch. Smaller hand puppets, too, fill voids and the lanky man is caring and meticulous with them. Earl, as the paranoid yet talkative puppetmaster, is, at once, cerebral and emotional. He hurts but he survives. Without the puppets, his existence would be meaningless. What might be his sense of reality? The leading performer, Joby Earl, was an original cast member when War Horse opened in New York. The actor understands the imaginative realm of puppetry and all of its potential appeal.
Brian Roff provides direction which is nothing short of sensitive to the content of the play. Jason Simms' set design is most fitting. Finkelbaum might be deluded but he is certain this is not so. The Concierge tries hard to pry her tenant away from his claustrophobic living quarters. The script affords relatively little movement opportunity for actors. It is about Finkelbaum, his mind, and his puppets.
The supporting actors are excellent, but this production centers upon Joby Earle's dexterity as a performer. For example, during the very first moment, he will cook an egg for himself and, a few minutes later, one for his puppet. He eats both and speaks with the audience as he does so. This is a very different version of multi-tasking. It is all accomplished smoothly and (seemingly) with ease.
Puppetmaster is unusual and absorbing. DeCola's puppets are splendid creations. The running time of two hours and fifteen minutes, including intermission, feels lengthy. If the lead actor could hold up, it might be wise to shorten (perhaps edit), which would enable staging without an intermission. Say this, however: an observer begins to feel as Finkelbaum doesthat the wall is inhibiting but protective. The known territory is familiar and further expansion might very well be disorienting if not threatening.
The Puppetmaster of Lodz initiates the season for Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The production continues through July 7th. For tickets, call (413) 298-5576 or visit www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.
- Fred Sokol