A two-actor ensemble of Martha Brigham and Stacy Ross, direction by Jon Tracy and a Northern California Premiere of Sarah Greenman's play "Leni" would seem to be foolproof. Featuring Brigham as the younger and Ross as the older Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker known for two 1930s propaganda films in support of Adolph Hitler, Leni is a small theater piece that makes you think -- perhaps a little more than you want to.
The younger Leni thinks it's all about her, while the older Leni tries to hide her divided self in film-talk, lighting and camera angles. The two actors work well with each other, though the film-making conceit combined with what appears to be the Nuremberg Trials is somewhat confusing. Projections from Liefenstahl's "Olympia" and "Triumph of the Will," broadcast on the wall of the small upstairs Harry's Stage, are quite effective. They serve to give us an idea of how and why these films came to be so severely judged after the war. It was always about Hitler. The awards before and the denigration and denunciation after had little to do with Leni, but she is the one who was never able to work again as a director of films.
The history is fascinating, as are the chilling comparisons to the times we are living through now. We wish the play itself had more to it. We have seen Martha Brigham several times in the past few months in excellent roles, but here Jon Tracy seems content to have her feign fury at her older self, while Stacy Ross, one of the Bay Area's finest actors, seems confined in an ersatz German accent. For us, the fault is not with the actors but with the play itself, which comes across with a lot of sturm but perhaps not enough drang.
RATINGS: ☼ ☼ BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Leni" Two Stars with a Bangle of Praise, one star each for Brigham and Ross and a Bangle of Praise for the renovation of Harry's Stage. This rating places this show under the Julie Andrews Line of recommendation -- those who love the actors will enjoy watching them work, but in the end the more we know about Leni Riefenstahl, the less we like her.
Aurora Theatre Harry's Stage
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through May 7