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‘Compulsion’ follows the journey of Anne Frank’s diary from the page to the stage, with marionettes

Playwright Rinne B. Groff’s semi-fictional tale follows the struggle to turn the Holocaust diary into a stage production

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Marionettes may not immediately spring to mind when you think about one of the 20th century’s most revered texts: the diary of Anne Frank. But puppetry is integral to playwright Rinne B. Groff’s “Compulsion or the House Behind,” inspired by the passion and obsession of one of the diary’s key American popularizers.

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The puppetry “has a real purpose” in the show, says Matt Acheson, who designed the marionettes for Theater J’s production of “Compulsion,” and did the same for the play’s 2010 world premiere, a co-production by Yale Repertory Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and New York’s Public Theater. The “Compulsion” marionettes in his view mirror the battle of wills Groff’s semi-fictional play depicts: a creative, commercial and legal tug-of-war beginning in the 1950s, during the attempt to turn the Anne Frank story into a stage production.

“You’re watching people pull it this way, pull it that way. ‘Make it dance like this! Make it more universal! We gotta take this out! We gotta put this in!’ Everybody’s coming in now and pulling a string of this story,” Acheson says.

To this day, puppetry remains a resonant metaphor for our relationship to Frank, says Johanna Gruenhut, who directs Theater J’s production, scheduled to run in person from Jan. 26 to Feb. 20, with a streaming option beginning Feb. 8.

“We all have a vision of who Anne is, in our own lives, and we create her for ourselves,” says Gruenhut, Theater J’s associate artistic director. “We sort of ‘puppet’ her, so that we feel connected to her in our own way.”

“Compulsion” draws on the true story of Meyer Levin, an early devotee of the diary Anne Frank kept while hiding from the Nazis in an Amsterdam warehouse annex. An author and sometime war correspondent, Levin encountered the diary after it was published in Europe following Frank’s death in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He championed the work in America and particularly yearned to adapt it for the stage, so as to acquaint a wide audience with an invaluable first-person witness to the Holocaust.

With the blessing of Otto Frank, Anne’s father, Levin wrote an adaptation. But his script was rejected in favor of a dramatization by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, which ultimately opened on Broadway in 1955 and won a Pulitzer Prize. Levin thought his script had been nixed because it gave due attention to the story’s Jewish dimension, which, in his view, the producing team wanted to downplay. He turned paranoid and litigious, going so far as to sue Otto Frank.

“Compulsion” imagines a similar chain of events precipitated by a Levin-like character named Sid Silver, portrayed at Theater J by Paul Morella. (Mandy Patinkin originated the role in 2010.) Over 30 years, his passion for the diary’s eloquence and authority spirals into irrational possessiveness and a persecution complex, and his career and relationships suffer. “We will see a man who was totally consumed with the thing he loves the most,” says Gruenhut — one whose story reflects how “obsession can be very beautiful, but also be our potential downfall.”

Underscoring Silver’s mania are non-naturalistic moments in which Anne and other characters appear in marionette form. In addition to the puppetry’s metaphorical overtones of manipulation, a historical fact justifies the conceit: Levin ran a marionette theater in Chicago in the 1930s.

Acheson still remembers how hard it was originally to turn this device into reality, at least when it came to the puppet character of Anne. Anne Frank is “a holy figure,” he says. “She’s this intangible genius, an example for all of us to live up to. So I kept psyching myself out: I could not get the face. I could not get the face.” But then he remembered that audiences are the co-creators of successful puppetry, projecting emotion and vitality onto inanimate objects: This epiphany made him feel less burdened, and so resolved his block.

The marionettes in Theater J’s “Compulsion” stand almost four feet tall and are made partly out of foam. Some are revamped versions of ones Acheson created a decade ago. But the original puppets for Anne, Otto and Anne’s confidant Peter are now at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, he notes, so he had to create entirely new iterations.

Because his technical know-how has grown since the premiere, the puppets are lighter and easier to manipulate, changes that benefit him, since he is one of this production’s puppeteers, along with Eirin Stevenson.

But Acheson has not tampered with a stratagem he used in the premiere production: The puppets have papier-mache ‘skin,’ made from pages of Frank’s published diary. Even if theatergoers are too far away to read and recognize passages, “it adds a level of subconscious storytelling that I think is really engaging,” Acheson says.

Not that he approached this upcycling lightly. The papier-mache was sourced both from paperback copies of the diary or — for larger words and handwriting — computer printouts, and Acheson’s family helped him with the process. Before they started ripping up pages, they took a moment to reverently acknowledge Frank’s work.

“I respect this book,” says Acheson. “I respect books in general. The act of tearing a book apart seems rather violent. But I don’t think this is violent, because it’s bringing these words to life.”

If you go

Compulsion or the House Behind

Theater J, Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. 202-777-3210. theaterj.org.

Dates: Jan. 26-Feb. 20 (in-person performances); also available via streaming Feb. 8-20.

Prices: $35-$70 for in-person performances; $60 for streaming.

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