Rebecca Wisocky in Amazons and Their Men
(© Carl Skutsch)
Rebecca Wisocky in Amazons and Their Men
(© Carl Skutsch)
Leni Riefenstahl was one of the most accomplished and infamous filmmakers of the 20th Century, best known for her groundbreaking film of the Nazi Nuremberg rally, Triumph of the Will. While in her later life she insisted she made a documentary rather than propaganda, her entire career and legacy has been marked by her association with the Nazi party. Jordan Harrison's intriguing yet flawed Amazons and Their Men, currently being presented by Clubbed Thumb at the Ohio Theater, tells a fictional account of the filmmaker's aborted project Penthesilea, examining her complicity with what was going on around her.

The central figure in the play, set in 1938 just prior to the onset of war, is simply known as "The Frau" (Rebecca Wisocky). As Riefenstahl did, she attempts to star in and direct a film version of Heinrich von Kleist's play, Penthesilea, about the Amazon Queen's love for and battle with the Greek hero, Achilles. The Frau casts a Jewish man (Brian Sgambati) as Achilles, assuring him that as long as he acts in her film, he will be safe. However, when she casts a beautiful messenger boy (Gio Perez) to play Achilles' faithful companion Patrocles, the sexual chemistry between the two men ignites both on and off camera, threatening to unbalance The Frau's film.

Added in to the mix is The Frau's sister, billed simply as "The Extra" (Heidi Schreck). She has appeared in many of her sister's previous works, playing a large variety of characters who get killed off, and claims that she has "a talent for dying inconspicuously." She serves as both conscience and enabler to The Frau, and the dynamic between the two is the most compelling part of Harrison's play.

As he did in Doris to Darlene, seen earlier this season at Playwrights Horizons, Harrison has his characters frequently talk to the audience, giving exposition or narrating their thought processes. This creates a kind of Brechtian distance, while also allowing for some of the play's self-aware humor. While the technique works slightly better here, it's still a bit overdone.

Visually, the play is striking, thanks largely to Kirche Leigh Zeile's costumes and the gorgeous lighting by Garin Marschall. Director Ken Rus Schmoll has his actors give larger than life performances, particularly Wisocky and Sgambati, who speak in rounded tones and strike cartoonishly stylized poses. This adds an element of campiness to the production, but sometimes at the expense of the deeper drama that Harrison is also going for. While all of the actors are entertaining, Schreck is the only one who manages to convey a deeper level of emotion. Wisocky, however, has such an undeniably powerful presence that it often compensates for the more surface portrayal that she enacts.

While the Frau talks about art and beauty, her own actions reveal a disconnect between her ideals and the compromises she makes to attain them. It's not just her past history with the Nazi party that informs her work, but the dictatorial way that she treats her actors is also paralleled to what Germany was doing with its "undesirables" at that time. The way that the Frau determines their fates shows, at the very least, an unconscious complicity with the Nazis, which gives the play a sobering note that grounds its whimsical style.