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Lisa Bostnar and Joel Leffert
in The Gardens of Frau Hess
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
A Jewish concentration camp prisoner and the wife of deputy-fuhrer Rudolf Hess; can you imagine a more unlikely pair? Based on a historical footnote, The Gardens of Frau Hess is playwright Milton F. Marcus' imagining of the relationship between Ilse Hess and her Jewish gardener, Isaac. And they are much more alike than you might think.

Isaac, a former professor of botany, is released from the Mauthausen concentration camp in order to help Frau Hess "purify" her beautiful garden by ridding it of all non-German plants; she considers the action silly, but must comply. At the time of Isaac's arrival, her husband has recently flown to England (presumably to attempt an alliance between Germany and that country), leaving Ilse alone in the house. Having been all but abandoned by the other higher-ups, and with seemingly limited authority as the war goes on and the Nazi machine grows, Ilse has only Isaac as a companion.

Ilse Hess at first seems to be a very one-note character. She's a haughty, Wagner-loving German who speaks to Isaac, even as he stands stooped over in his tattered prison uniform, about the disappointment of her being able to have only one servant and going on to dismiss the Biblical story of his namesake as a silly fairy tale. Lisa Bostnar doesn't help matters, playing the insensitive woman with high-class relish (though her portrayal does improve as the story progresses). But just as it seems the play may get lost in heavy-handedness, Isaac (Joel Leffert) begins to reveal his true character. We learn that he is a decidedly non-religious Jew, anxious to shed his ethnicity and be a 'true' German. Even in the wake of his experiences--his wife died on the train, his daughter was taken away from him, he suffered greatly in the camps--Isaac takes pains to show Ilse that he is just like her. She even dresses him in German clothes until he begins looking like an SS officer strutting around the house. But Ilse plays games with Isaac, seducing him and allowing him to feel her equal for moments at a time before suddenly reminding him of his inferiority.

Richard Ellis makes a brilliant use of space with his single set design, though it's a shame that we don't get a better sense of the majesty of the play's titular gardens. On the other hand, there is little gardening done here; it's just a device. The Gardens of Frau Hess is really about the power struggle between these two individuals, and it is quite a struggle. Realizing Ilse's volatile emotional state and understanding her helplessness, Isaac becomes bold. He relaxes, he speaks harshly to her, he prods her to talk about her past. We discover that they both have secrets, and the revealing of those secrets becomes part of their game.

Marcus has set up a situation brimming with possibility, and he does do a lot with it. But the inconsistencies are often disconcerting. Though Ilse's traumatic past sheds some light on what has turned her into the cruel woman she is now, Marcus has her make some troublesome statements about cruelty being the very nature of her "tribe" (i.e. the Germans) without exploring the notion further. We are left with the idea that, though they might seem cultured and intelligent, German people are soulless barbarians with delusions of grandeur. Isaac, too, feels incomplete as a character; there isn't much sense of what has alienated him from his ethnic and religious identity, nor of how his wife and child fit into this picture.

The Gardens of Frau Hess
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The dialogue and actions of the characters are at times improbable, often turning to reveal an exciting plot twist or introduce a powerful new idea and then falling back into improbability. It's frustrating, but much can be forgiven as this is Marcus' first effort and he shows a willingness to dig out interesting issues. We learn something of the political turmoil that occurred within the Nazi regime as Ilse displays a white-hot hatred for the lower class Germans who are running the day-to-day operations of the Third Reich. Through her, we get some idea of how the worship of intellect and beauty caused the downfall of the German people: In short, their Wagnerian dreams so enraptured them that they eventually lost touch with reality.

The most compelling aspect of the play is Isaac's attraction to both Ilse and her lifestyle. Here is a German Jew who, despite what he has been through, still aspires to be like his tormentors. In the end, Ilse and Isaac are The Aristocrat and The Jew. The German people don't want either of them, so they're stuck with each other.

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