STOCKBRIDGE -- Finkelbaum, the title puppetmaster in Gilles Ségal's "The Puppetmaster of Lodz," which is being given a more intellectually than emotionally engaging production at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre, has exchanged one prison for another.
In the closing weeks of the war, with the Allies advancing, Finkelbaum and a friend escape from a notorious concentration camp. Finkelbaum makes his way to the outskirts of Berlin where he finds refuge in a fourth floor apartment. Now, five years later, in 1950, with Berlin a divided city, Finkelbaum (Joby Earle) remains there behind his locked door.. Convinced the war is still on, he refuses to leave his apartment -- save only to use the bathroom next door -- no matter how insistently the building's landlady (Julie Gibson) tries to persuade him otherwise. He has an answer for everything.
His material needs are met by the groceries and supplies his landlady brings him and which he pays for with his savings. His emotional needs are another matter. A puppeteer by trade before the war, Finkelbaum has made up for the loss of his pregnant wife in the concentration camp by creating a lifesize puppet representation of her with which he talks, eats, sleeps, makes love. He also has created a community of smaller size puppets, whose fate hangs in a chilling, grimly ironic balance when the man with whom Finkelbaum escaped shows up and Finkelbaum is forced into facing a reality he has denied, rejected for five years.
Earle's Finkelbaum is tightly wound emotionally. He goes about his routines efficiently and in a kind of staccatolike rhythm and speech pattern. He bears a survivor's instinctively protective clinical detachment.
The production, under the direction of Brian Roff (who has divided Ségal's intermissionless play into two acts but at a point that makes some sense) unfolds at a steady, purposeful rhythm.
While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with any of the performances (Earle's, Gibson's, Jesse Hinson as Schwartzkopf, Finkelbaum's concentration camp comrade, and Lee Sellars as various men brought to Finkelbaum's door by the concierge in a series of vain attempts to draw Finkelbaum out), neither -- with the exception of one chilling sequence near the end involving Finkelbaum and his puppets -- is there anything terribly gripping or involving. Ségal has set up an intriguing premise but his play, at the same time, is overwritten. The play rambles, meanders, stalls.
The play and Earle's performance are at their most telling in the early sequences between Finkelbaum and the puppet surrogate Rachel. Finkelbaum's loving, artful, effortless manipulation of Rachel, his conversations with her, hold the play's core -- a love story; a tale of loss and the dramatic extents to which one can be pushed in order to survive, to face life in the wake of unimaginable suffering and loss.
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