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Playing Leni – an artist’s dilemma, at Madhouse Theater


You’re offered support, acclaim, fame, and prestige as an artist, given a blank check, with everything at your disposal. But there’s just one catch: you’ll be working for the Nazis, to create propaganda for the Third Reich during World War II. Such was the dilemma of Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl. How would you play it?

DaPonte and Grove in Playing Leni photo by Paola Noguerasweb
Amanda Grove as Leni Riefenstahl confronts Robert DaPonte as The Soldier in Playing Leni, and makes us wonder if she’s a driven filmmaker or a crazed Nazi; photo by Paola Nogueras.

Madhouse Theater Company founder John Stanton, who co-authored Playing Leni with David Robson, was fascinated by the question of “how far someone is willing to go for fame and success.” Did Riefenstahl truly believe in the Nazi cause she promoted in her films, or was she a mere opportunist, who let blind ambition triumph over moral conscience?

AGrove RDaPonteMadhousePlayingLeni photo by Paola Noguerasweb
Amanda Grove and Robert DaPonte in Playing Leni; photo by Paola Nogueras. Set by Lance Kniskern and props by Paul Jerue are clever, with two chairs and a table doubling for the car’s interior. Video projections by Joshua Schulman.

The new dark comedy is a fictionalized account of Riefenstahl’s capture, arrest, and transfer to a detention center by an American Allied soldier. In it, their journey offers Leni a compelling theme for a film, starring herself and her captor–her own story, which she composes, directs, rewrites, and edits along the way. With video projections as a backdrop, the two-person cast moves through Germany, and Leni’s self-edited recollections, doing take after retake to recount their own slanted versions of her affiliation with the Nazis.

Robert DaPonte and Amanda GroveMadhousePlayingLeni photo by Paola Noguerasweb
Robert DaPonte and Amanda Grove as The Soldier and Leni. photo by Paola Nogueras.

Robert DaPonte as The Soldier cements his status as one of Philadelphia’s finest young actors, equally adept at physical comedy and committed characterizations, at accents and impersonations. Under Seth Reichgott’s direction, Amanda Grove’s Leni is powerful and commanding, comical and conflicted, but steadfastly unwilling “to shoulder the burden of other people’s crimes.”

Madhouse’s imaginative interpretation of Riefenstahl is remarkably even-handed; the audience feels both contempt and sympathy for Leni, and recognizes that we could all be like her, depending on the circumstances. The play raises ethical issues without being preachy, allowing each of us to decide for ourselves if Riefenstahl was complicit or unknowing, a chameleon who could adapt to any situation, or a survivor who made the movies because she had no choice. And it manages all the while to be very, very funny.

Leni Riefenstahlweb
1923 photo of Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) by Karl Schenker

In reality, the filmmaker was arrested in 1945 and detained for three years in various Allied facilities, but was never convicted of any crime. Nonetheless, she is inextricably bound to the Nazis, and as The Soldier tells her in the play, “Once you sell your soul, you can’t buy it back.” The verdict is still out on Leni Riefenstahl, but it’s a resounding victory for Playing Leni.