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H*tler's Tasters

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 4, 2022

MaryKathryn Kopp, Kaitlin Paige Longoria, and Hallie Griffin
Photo by Howard Canning
Imagine what it must be like knowing that your next meal could be your last. And not in an "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die" sort of way. This is what life is like for the teenage girls depicted in H*tler's Tasters, a darkly comic play by Michelle Kholos Brooks that opened last night at Theatre Row.

The production by New Light Theater Project and directed by Sarah Norris is based on one of the many disturbingly true footnotes of the Nazi era. It tells the story of a group of young women who have been granted the "honor" of serving as food tasters for Adolf Hitler, a precaution against any attempt to poison the dictator. The entire play takes place within a small, windowless chamber. The set design by An-Lin Dauber is simple: a table covered in white linen, with three chairs set up around it. Lighting by Christina Tang and Carsen Joenk's sound design are used to indicate the passage of time between scenes and, most effectively, to establish an underlying air of foreboding.

In case you might suppose these "volunteers" were selected from among the prisoners of the Third Reich, you would be mistaken. As the seemingly self-assured Hilda (MaryKathryn Kopp), one of the trio we meet at the start of the play, explains: "the Fuhrer needs girls of good German stock; our pure blood works like his pure blood. Jews cannot replace us."

If that last sentence ("Jews cannot replace us") strikes a familiar chord, think back to the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. This sort of achronological reference is one of many, including bursts of alt-rock music, that yank us through time from World War II into the present era. Parallels are intentional, resulting in sometimes comic, sometimes disconcerting cautionary moments.

When we first meet Hilda, Liesel (Hallie Griffin), and Anna (Kaitlin Paige Longoria), the latter two are dressed in attire they might have worn to school in the 1930s, while Hilda is dressed in a modern outfit (costumes by Ashleigh Poteat). She is also carrying a cell phone and using it to take frequent selfies.

It turns out, however, that all three have cell phones, which, apart from the group pictures they delight in (all the better to remember each other in case any of them dies or disappears), serve another purpose. Amidst a lot of "girl talk" ("Who would you rather sleep with? The Fuhrer or Frank Sinatra?"), the atmosphere periodically and abruptly changes. We hear sounds of approaching German soldiers (we never see them), and the girls stop everything and jump into formal positions around the table, their hands out-raised in order to accept plates of food. They eat in uncomfortable silence and then wait for their phone alarms to go off, indicating an hour has passed and that they have survived another round of potential death.

In between these meals, they three do what they can to pass the time: gossip, quarrel, engage in games of Truth or Dare, and swear each other to fidelity and secrecy as they reveal both shallow thoughts and troubling experiences, especially as the talk turns to the outside world during a time of war. They do go home at the end of each day, as indicated by the many changes in their outfits, but homelife is not necessarily better than the time they spend locked up together. Their conversations also reflect the xenophobia that engulfs their daily lives, with little understanding as to how any of this is impacting their own adolescence beyond the fear of dying at the end of one of their meals.

The mix of chatter and dread makes for a powerful 90-minute play, which was previously produced at IRT Theater and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This latest production has been fine-tuned and boasts a pitch perfect cast, even if the content may leave a bad taste in your mouth.

H*tler's Tasters
Through May 31, 2022
New Light Theater Project
Theatre Row, Theatre 1, 410 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues)
Tickets online and current performance schedule: Theatre Row