By: Samuel L. Leiter
October 9, 2018: For anyone in Nazi Germany during World War II, when food supplies were short and rationing in place, getting a job where you were guaranteed three delicious meals a day, even if they were vegetarian, must have seemed highly desirable. Especially if your only job responsibility was to eat those meals. On the other hand, since the purpose of the job was to ensure that the food, intended for Adolph Hitler, wasn’t poisoned, one could be forgiven for having reservations about gobbling it up.
Such indeed are the circumstances behind Michelle Kholos Brooks’s play, Hitler’s Tasters, now in a New Light Theater production at Off Broadway’s IRT Theater after winning the 2017 Glaspell Award and premiering at Hackettstown, NJ’s, Centenary Stage Company. If a reviewer can be considered a play taster for prospective audiences, I’d say I survived Hitler’s Tasters but not without a case of critical cramps.
In 2013, newspapers in Germany began to report that Hitler had a system in which 15 young women were given the “honor” of serving the Reich by tasting each of the Fuehrer’s meals. The 96-year-old woman providing the information, who had been one of the tasters, was named Margot Wölk. When she died in 2014, no one claimed it was from something she ate.
Nothing in the program of Hitler’s Tasters, much less the play, mentions the historical background. But it seems likely that Wölk’s account provided its inspiration, especially as one of its four characters is named Margot (Hannah Sturges). We don’t meet her, though, until after the situation has been set up: three young women meet daily in a room resembling a gray, padded cell, designed by An-lin Dauber, furnished with a table and three chairs. It’s not a jail, though, since they’re apparently able to commute.
Hilde (MaryKathryn Kopp), whose “vater” is an important officer, takes the mean girl role, Leisel (Hallie Griffin) is more a conciliator, and Anna (Kaitlin Paige Longoria) verges on the overwrought, partly because her associations with Jews are suspect. When Anna vanishes, Margot replaces her. Another replacement will appear just before the final curtain.
Totally bored, the girls fill the time between meals by behaving like egregiously silly teenagers. The script says they’re “high teens to early 20’s” but they behave more like empty-headed 12- or 13-year-olds as they gossip, squeal, giggle, snipe, fight, dance, loll about, brag, and chat about sex, the guards’ looks, the Fuehrer, the Fuehrer’s dog (Blondi), and Hollywood stars (including speculation about Frank Sinatra’s endowment).
As they await a signal that the danger of a meal has passed, they ponder their fate, justify their “patriotic” existence, and express nervousness about the possible outcome of each meal, even considering the existence of an antidote.
For some odd reason, though, Brooks, whose methods vary from serious to comic, has deliberately anachronized the play, giving the girls cell phones, allowing them to constantly take selfies, and even long for when Hitler himself will visit and share one with them. It’s hard to make out what Brooks is after with this and other choices (including a few vulgarities) other than to suggest that these benighted girls are no different from the airheads of today. After an hour and 20 minutes of this, you may begin thinking about antidotes yourself.
Which isn’t to deny that each actress fulfills her obligations with energy and commitment, regardless of their unconvincing, frequently annoying characters. Director Sarah Norris stages the play with a modernist sensibility, ritualizing the meals and otherwise creating theatrically heightened moments that have interesting visual values.
She’s helped by Christina Tang’s stylized lighting, including neon strips surrounding the set; vaguely period costuming by Ashleigh Poeteat that requires four, simultaneous, onstage changes; and completely out-of-period, contemporary music, like “Bitch I’m Madonna,” which accompanies a group dance choreographed by Ashlee Wasmund. I had no idea what it meant but it was my favorite moment.
The story of Hitler’s tasters is one audiences might be hungry to devour. But Brooks’s tongue-in-and-out-of-cheek approach fails to locate its dramatic meat (much less its comic bones). A docudrama version of the fascinating (on paper) events might have proved far more theatrically succulent.
Hitler’s Tasters **
154 Christopher St., NYC
Through October 27, 2018
Photography: Hunter Canning