Akvavit Theatre impresses with their adaptation of Danish playwright Rhea Leman’s Hitler on the Roof which was first performed in 2011 against a backdrop of rising European nationalism. Performed for the first time in the U.S., the play here serves nicely as a warning of exactly where alternative facts may lead us.
Told in two parts, this dark comedy explores the pathos of the Nazi propaganda machine via a post-war Dr. Joseph Goebbels (played in clown face by the very talented Amy Gorelow). Seemingly trapped for eternity in a bunker below modern day Berlin, the former Nazi Minister of Culture passes his time by singing snippets of Broadway show tunes (including, of course, Cabaret) and pretending to host a cutting edge radio station before scurrying under a table like a rat at the first sign of danger from above. Goebbels also takes time to explain in detail exactly how to go about spoiling the character of a nation (first rule is to repeat a lie enough times until it becomes the truth). One can almost imagine White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer sitting in the back row taking notes.
In the second part of the production Goebbels is joined in his underground bunker by the artist Leni Riefenstahl (Jay Torrence) who directed several propaganda films for Nazi Germany. Possibly the angel of death and, also possibly, implicit in Hitler’s final reign, Riefenstahl attempts the seemingly impossible; to get Goebbels to demonstrate a bit of remorse.
Hitler on the Roof has a lot going for it beginning with the very impressive and ultra-physical performances by Gorelow and Torrence. Both actors give everything they have and command the stage with their presence and commitment to their roles. Co-directors Kristin Franklin and Amber Robinson are clever in their staging of the performance as well as their use of Chad Eric Bergman’s imaginative set design. Although this is not exactly a subtle play, the deeper messages nonetheless develop at a natural pace and the ending surprises with its ability to connect with the audience.
As tempting as it is to call Hitler on the Roof timely, it is hard to imagine a time when this material would not be topical. This is by no means the first (and likely not the last) that our own nation is afflicted by the unflinching resentment toward the minority. If only the villains would consent to wear clown makeup.
Bottom line: Akvavit’s “Hitler on the Roof” is highly recommended and is currently playing at the Straw Dog Theatre Company (1802 West Bernice) through July 9th. Tickets are $25 and are available at chicagonordic.org For more theater reviews go to theaterinchicago.com.