4 out of 4 stars
Not nearly enough plays touch on the role the arts play in propaganda and pushing a political narrative, and there is no theme more central to Hitler on the Roof –produced by Akvavit Theatre and playing at Strawdog Theatre Company's new home—than that. I remember attending an artists’ lecture at Northwestern University, some years ago, where the artist described taking on work for a contractor somewhere in Eastern Europe. She was asked to theme all her designs in a specific manner, which the contracting company would then pass out to youth at rallies. You can imagine her horror when she learned, years later and through her own sleuthing, that her artwork was in fact used to push a narrative that would attempt to oust the country’s then-current leader in favor of one more in-line with the United States’ interests. The company which hired her, it turned out, was actually a part of our CIA. Sometimes not even the artists themselves are aware of the impact their work is intended to have.
Not in this case, however, which examines the beliefs of the Nazis’ most important propagandists. Propaganda is important in the current day and age. Hitler on the Roof was written recently—2011—by Rhea Leman, as she worried that the rise in Nationalism seen in Denmark would begin to repeat some of the worst parts of recent history. This was the year another Scandinavian country, Norway, lost over 80 children to an insane right-wing extremist. Seeing the rise of the likes of Trump and associates, six years after the play was written, makes it seem almost prescient. Needless to say, there may not have been a better time for the play’s U.S. premiere than now.
The play stars two Nazis, Dr. Joseph Goebbels and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl—played by Amy Gorelow and Jay Torrence, respectively. Yes, they play opposite genders. No, not all women have that much chest hair.—doomed to an eternal purgatory. Set in a bunker, but without a single fiddle, the set and sound design were nevertheless fantastic. The audience walks through the ‘bunker’ as they make their way to the seats, and though the stage is small they’ve made great use of the space. The sound design, from the music and effects all the way to the Hilterish echoes, is just as well done. Not to mention how exquisite the tattered Nazi uniforms and other costumes were. Really the only gripe I have was that there could’ve been a larger beer selection prior to the show. Then again the beer (and wine) was free, so perhaps I shouldn’t complain. Speaking of freedom, even the beer was suitably patriotic: #Merica!
Even today, after books upon books, intellectuals upon intellectuals, and at least one play discusses the issue, propaganda still makes its faces known. Hitler on the Roof is quite explicit in its indictment against those who would co-opt art for their own means, but makes clear that the artists themselves are not always so innocent. It goes further, in fact, questioning whether such works of propaganda have a legitimate claim to being ‘Art’. It’s an intelligent play, disguised as a black comedy, and it is well worth your time.
Akvavit Theatre’s production of Hitler on the Roof, playing at Strawdog Theatre Company’s new home at 1802 W. Berenice, Chicago, runs from June 23rd to July 9th. Tickets are $25 and are currently available at chicagonordic.org.
I've had the fortune of being born to a painter, and since childhood have been involved in the arts in some form or another. After attaining degrees in Music Performance and Cognitive Science from Northwestern University, and after being exposed to the wonderful theater scene there, I realized I'd benefit as an artist if I continued contributing to the community. I believe an important part to being an artist is having exposure to as many sorts of Art as possible. Theater is one of the most variegated arts, and I feel all the richer for playing the small role I have in the Chicago theater scene (hopefully, Chicago is all the richer for having me!)