STOCKBRIDGE -- How do you survive the years ahead of you when you’ve endured the worst brutality that can be thrown at you and lost everything worth living for in the bargain?
It’s a question actor Joby Earle and director Brian Roff have wrestled with each day as they’ve been working on Gilles Ségal’s "The Puppetmaster of Lodz," opening a two-week run tonight at 8 at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre after two nights of previews.
Earle plays a youngish man named Finkelbaum who has, in effect, exchanged one prison for another. With World War II very nearly over and the Allies advancing, Finkelbaum escapes from a concentration camp and finds refuge in a small room in Berlin. Convinced the war is still on, he has never set foot outside the room in the five years he’s lived there; never opened the door, despite entreaties by his kind landlady and assurances by others she has brought around that the war is, indeed, over and he is safe.
Within the walls of his room, Finkelbaum has created a safe haven; a reality of his own that is inhabited by puppets he has fashioned from odd objects lying around his flat.
"So what would drive a person to stay in a room for five years?" Earle asked, somewhat rhetorically during a recent joint interview with Roff outside one of the rehearsal studios at BTG’s Lavan Campus on Route 7.
"He doesn’t view his life as tragic. Everyone outside his room does but he doesn’t."
"I think this play works in two ways," said Roff, who directed the world premiere of "Dutch Masters" last summer, also at BTG’s Unicorn.
"Part of it is historical. This is Berlin right after the airlift has ended and pre-Berlin wall. But this also is a play about grief; about going through deep personal tragedy, profound loss (of his wife and baby) and how one deals with all that grief."
"There is something he is trying to preserve by staying in that room," Earle said. "At the same time, external forces are trying to persuade him to move his external life forward."
"He’s in a suspended state of crisis in that room," Roff said. "In that room Rachel (his wife) is neither dead nor alive. As soon as he opens the door to his room he has to accept that she is no longer in limbo. In this room, however, he still has a family."
His puppets, in fact.
Earle is as much at home with puppets as is Finkelbaum. Earle has spent the past year and a half as a member of the cast of "War Horse" at Lincoln Center and that play’s cast of lifesize horse puppets and now here in a role that he will return to in September when "Puppetmaster Š" reopens at the Unicorn for a monthlong run.
The puppets have been designed by Emily Cola, who runs Puppet Kitchen in New York and who recommended Earle to Roff for his skills not only as an actor but as a puppeteer.
"This play is not only about grief but also the unrelenting force of healing," Earle said. "It’s the most basic of energies. Finkelbaum was a puppeteer by trade before the war. He is healing himself with these puppet shows in his room. It’s what he’s accessed to keep himself secure in this room."
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