Theater Review

'Amazons and Their Men' explores nexus of fascism and mythology

Jjana Valentiner is the diva Frau in
Jjana Valentiner is the diva Frau in "Amazons and Their Men," with Daniel Eichner. (Emily Levin)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

After the massive bite of its seven-hour "Angels in America," Forum Theatre returns with an intriguing nibble: the 75-minute "Amazons and Their Men," the story of an egomaniacal German film director who's made great propaganda for the Nazis and now seeks to make great art for humankind.

If the protagonist sounds suspiciously like Leni Riefenstahl -- whose 1935 "Triumph of the Will" is a landmark of documentary agitprop -- playwright Jordan Harrison intends his leading character to be Riefenstahl in everything but name. She is identified here simply as the Frau, perhaps to allow Harrison license to project onto her the paradoxical attributes that suit his tale, which takes place on the set of a movie Riefenstahl was forced to abandon as war began.

The resulting 2008 drama, as directed by Michael Dove and Elissa Goetschius, has its satisfying aspects, though it will probably appeal most to a specialized clientele: those with an abiding interest in Riefenstahl's life, or in how a dramatist goes about illuminating the process of moviemaking. The performances don't come across as particularly grounded in a period, either, and this adds a bit to an audience's burden.

The domineering Frau, for instance, presents any actress with a formidable challenge, and while Jjana Valentiner capably assumes an affected air, she may be a little green for a part requiring so much charismatic authority.

Harrison's well-constructed story weaves the skeletal facts of the Riefenstahl project -- a film she was developing about Penthesilea, the mythological queen of the Amazons killed by Achilles -- with incidents in the lives of imagined and real people on the set. As the actors describe and reenact scenes that Riefenstahl filmed (and later burned), we're meant to absorb the complex moral dramas unfolding around her. To play Achilles, she hires a young Jewish man (Daniel Eichner), who in effect receives from her a reprieve from Nazi persecution. He falls in love with a messenger boy (Jay Saunders), a Gypsy whom Riefenstahl hires for the homoerotic role of Achilles' friend, Patroclus.

Hovering in the director's shadow is her neglected gofer of a sister, a young woman played by Laura C. Harris and called the Extra. At the center is Valentiner's Frau, who casts herself as Penthesilea. Intent on demonstrating her independence from the Nazis, she focuses her energies on her artful costume epic, and as the cast members call out the camera angles, we are reminded of her status as pioneering auteur. The irony is that her dictatorial devotion to the work only seems to reinforce her kinship with the methods of her fascist overlords.

With the help of a talented set designer, Tobias Harding, Dove and Goetschius frame "Amazons and Their Men" as a handsomely pristine art installation, staged at Round House Theatre in Silver Spring. On a white floor sit a pair of boulders; behind them hangs a rectangular mountain landscape, rendered in shades of gray. Andrew Griffin's nifty lighting bathes this sterile movie location in violet and other striking hues; the only discordant element is the unflattering fur-trimmed garb that Melanie Clark creates for the Frau.

Eichner alternates admirably between Achilles' campy valor and the young actor's sensitive exploration of his nature, and Harris has some amusing moments as a bit player who specializes in death scenes. Although you could wish at times for a little more dramatic oomph from some of the cast, "Amazons and Their Men" gives Forum another opportunity to show off its taste and range.

Amazons and Their Men,

by Jordan Harrison. Directed by Michael Dove and Elissa Goetschius. Set, Tobias Harding; costumes, Melanie Clark; lighting, Andrew Griffin; sound, Wade Tandy. About 75 minutes. Through March 20 at Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Visit or call 240-644-1100.

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