Ethnic Theater - Jewish
East 13th Street Theater, Manhattan
Playwright Suzanne Glass offers one more tale of a tormented Jew who survives into the post-Holocaust era. Such literature continues to inundate the theater, the theme providing playwrights with an endless source of inspiration and repetition.
But this current drama by this gifted playwright has a different twist. “The Milliner” focuses on a German-born émigré who longs for his “homeland,” despite the abuses the Nazi regime had once visited upon him and his family. It is a character rarely explored in post-Holocaust drama, despite the fact that such émigrés undoubtedly do—or did--exist.
In the title role is Wolfgang, a German Jewish milliner who longs to return to Berlin. Wolfgang sees himself as a German--not a Jew, an identity which he barely acknowledges. Nor does he appreciate the English haven given him during the war. In every way he views the German culture as superior—in style, music, language, cuisine, people.
Once a successful designer of women’s hats, he attempts to rekindle past triumphs by returning to his former city. Hoping to reestablish his Berlin business, he leaves his artist wife Amalia in London and becomes embroiled with Claudia, a German cabaret singer. The play operates on two levels—the Milliner’s tangled relations with the two women, and the continuing current of anti-Semitism in post-war Berlin.
Playwright Suzanne Glass has created a memory piece, with Wolfgang (played flawlessly by Michel Gill) serving as both narrator and lead character. He is backed by a first-rate cast—Caralyn Kozlowski, Maria Cellario, Donna Davis, Julia Haubner, Glenn Kalison, and Steven Hauck. Under Mark Clements’ direction, every scene packs a wallop, every character leaps from the page. Both Cellario and Haubner (playing Wolfgang’s mother and wife respectively) give strong, touching performances. And Kozlowski is letter-perfect as the cabaret singer, offering sultry Dietrich-like songs on stage. Unfortunately, she falters in the spoken lines, which she delivers in muffled tones. Gill himself is every inch the dapper artiste, wooing his customers with elegance, but gradually undergoing change and growth, moving from naivete to an understanding of the realities.
Clements is faced with the problem of offering the many short scenes in different locales. The off-Broadway East 13th St. Theater, where this new play is mounted, has a thrust stage which limits maneuverability. Clements handles the difficulty by keeping all props on stage at all times, spotlighting each scene as needed. Lighting designer Jeff Nellis’ spots work well, particularly when they pick out the overhead arc of gorgeous hats (courtesy of designer Lynne Mackey). But the detritus from all the scenes, left on stage, proves distracting.
Yet “The Milliner,” despite the problems of production, proves to be a strong, provocative play, well calculated to stimulate serious reflection. It offers audiences one more take on the Nazi era and its effect on the German Jews who survived.
-- Irene Backalenick
Oct. 30, 2006