There is a very strange, sad person living in a Berlin garret on the Studio Theatre's stage. "The Puppetmaster of Lodz," which opened Sunday, is a recent addition to the still-growing library of Holocaust literature, a dramatic study of one who is walking but is so wounded it seems barely possible that he can remain alive.
Physically, Samuel Finklebaum (Philip Goodwin) is uninjured; psychically he has surrendered to a weird half-life, never leaving the tiny room where he lives with the puppets who have replaced the now dead humans who were in his life. He found his young, pregnant wife in a pile of bodies at the concentration camp, bodies he was assigned to bury in a mass grave. He survived, but life is unbearable, and so he hides, pretending the war is not over, with a large rag doll in his bed instead of a woman.
He sits the doll at the table with him and feeds her (although the food goes into his mouth). He talks to her, dances with her and makes her jealous by flirting with another, sexier puppet. The concierge of the boarding house (Linda Van Polen) tries persistently -- through the door that Finklebaum has kept closed to the world -- to convince him that the war is over, that he is safe, but he refuses to believe her. She brings a Russian soldier, an American soldier, a Hasidic Jew (all played by Mitchell Patrick), but to no avail; Finklebaum will not -- can not -- believe that his life must go on outside the dusty womb he has created.
Meanwhile, he works on his puppet masterpiece, upending his bed for a makeshift theater. He brings out the puppets: faceless, gray little figures, marching in a line, prisoners in a concentration camp. Two puppets in uniform give Nazi salutes, and call out a name. Finklebaum cuts the strings of the prisoner puppets, one by one, a grim parody of what he saw in the camp.
The gray wooden puppets are everywhere in this attic room, as Finklebaum surrounds himself with tiny corpses of his own creation. His own effigy, also faceless, hangs in the center of the room, until he takes it down to reenact a dance of death, working the strings so the puppet cradles a dummy of his dead wife, and then takes a tiny puppet knife and stabs his puppet self, a red ribbon of blood unfurling before him.
A Frenchman, Gilles Segal, wrote this chilling tale, which was first produced in Paris in 1984. It is a painful drama, summoning as it does not merely the horrors of the Holocaust but the self-imprisonment of the demented everywhere.
It is not without a hope of redemption, however. After failing to persuade Finklebaum with entreaties and threats, the concierge locates the one surviving friend from the camps that Finklebaum has. The man (Lawrence Redmond) arrives and is admitted to the lair, as Finklebaum allows himself one last chance at human contact. He agrees to go away with his friend to start life anew, and -- in acknowledgment of reality -- does not ask for an extra train ticket for his puppet wife.
But, as engrossing as the play is at times, there are elements that keep one from embracing it fully. It is hard to understand why the concierge cares so much about her loony client, why she persists for five years before finding the key to get through to him. And Finklebaum's pain is such that it seems the only way he could salve his misery is to die, so his ready acceptance of his old friend Schwartzkopf is jarring. Throughout the preceding hour and a half Finklebaum has shored up his defenses, and descended -- seemingly -- more firmly into madness. His sudden acceptance of life is somehow unconvincing because we are unprepared for it.
Much depends on the actor who plays Finklebaum. Goodwin has committed his every corpuscle to the part, and is one of those rare actors whose technical proficiency is equal to his emotional depth. So it may seem like quibbling to complain, but at this point the performance is too bravura to be wholly compelling. We are too aware of being in the presence of Acting, and our conscious admiration gets in the way of losing ourselves in the play.
Goodwin is especially lovely in some of the quieter moments, however, such as when he carefully manipulates his puppet self across the floor, with its burden across its stick arms. And at the end, when he buries his head in the shoulder of his dummy wife -- bidding a bittersweet farewell to his self-made prison, which was also of course his refuge -- he is heart-rending.
Director Joy Zinoman has kept the atmosphere taut and the environment appropriately gloomy. As always, designer Russell Metheny supports her well, supplying a garret that almost conjures up the dank smell of a closed room. Metheny, along with Edward Haggerty and Sandra Fleishman, has also supplied the 26 puppets used in the play, each of them a sad messenger.
Of the supporting cast, Redmond and Patrick are particularly adroit. Were it not for her voice, Van Polen would be equally apt, but she has a musical comedy timbre that is disconcerting.
"The Puppetmaster of Lodz" will run in repertory with "In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe," which opened two weeks ago. Both provide two of the meatier evenings currently available on Washington stages.
The Puppetmaster of Lodz, by Gilles Segal. Translated by Sara O'Connor, directed by Joy Zinoman, set by Russell Metheny, lighting by Daniel MacLean Wagner, costumes by Ric Thomas Rice, properties by Sandra Fleishman, sound by Gil Thompson, puppets by Edward Haggerty. With Philip Goodwin, Linda Van Polen, Mitchell Patrick and Lawrence Redmond. At the Studio Theatre through Nov. 18.