The Puppetmaster of Lodz
By Gilles Segal; translated by Sara O’Connor
Directed by Bruce Levitt
ArcLight Theatre, 152 West 71st Street, New York
Through December 23
Puppeteers are supposed to be jolly sorts, who associate with Sesame Street, the Muppets and Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood. They have an eternal smile plastered on their faces, as they surround themselves with happy children carrying lollypops and balloons. But the profession also has a darker side. By manipulating helpless puppets, the puppeteer plays God, and risks blurring the boundary between reality and the imagination.
Samuel Finkelbaum, who is a Holocaust survivor in Gilles Segal’s borderline Theater of the Absurd play, “The Puppetmaster of Lodz,” confuses his puppets with real people – primarily his murdered wife. The puppets reflect their master’s growing insanity, and yet they also become important props in his story, which is more terrifying than insane.
Finkelbaum, whom Robert Zukerman plays brilliantly as a King Lear sans storm, is a broken but proud man who refuses to leave his Berlin attic apartment even five years after World War II has ended. Try as she might, Finkelbaum’s landlord (Suzanne Toren), whom he calls “Madame the Concierge,” cannot convince him to emerge from hiding. Nothing short of Stalin appearing at his door will convince the puppet master the war has ended. One senses that even if the Soviet dictator were to visit, the cynical Finkelbaum’s Talmudic interrogative techniques would convince Stalin he was a Nazi spy trying to capture the puppeteer.
Finkelbaum (Zuckerman) performing-decapitating puppets in his grand finale. Puppets by Ralph Lee. Image courtesy of Jim Baldassare Public Relations.
As Shakespeare’s fools and madmen often realize sobering, brilliant epiphanies, Finkelbaum explains to his landlady that his paranoia that she is feeding him fake newspapers is far from outrageous. “You think that impresses me, your news?” he demands. “Where we were before, they fabricated plenty of other things besides the news. So that people would suspect nothing, they fabricated false train stations, false station masters, false houses, with false flower pots and when they made them enter a gas chamber, telling them it was a shower, they believed.”
Five years of solitary confinement in one room has convinced Finkelbaum, like it did Lot’s daughters following the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, that he is the final Jew alive – as it convinces him that perhaps God has forsaken the Jewish people.
“How can a Jew still believe in a God who’s allowed half his people to be killed?” the puppet master wonders, as many of his fellow survivors wondered themselves. “He can perhaps believe in a God who’s managed to save half his people. They say if you want to, you can. If you absolutely want to believe, you can always find a way.”
Finkelbaum (Robert Zuckerman) plays his father (as puppet) in front of his wife-puppet Ruchele. Puppets by Ralph Lee. Image courtesy of Jim Baldassare Public Relations.
But then Finkelbaum hypothesizes, “Since we’ve been in here, since we don’t go out anymore, maybe there’s no longer even half Perhaps God has let all his people be killed. All his people except for us!” To the puppeteer, that means treating himself to an extra egg for breakfast because “it’s a sacred duty to survive” and “sing his glory, so that the faith does not pass away.” Finkelbaum compares his newfound responsibility to Adam and Eve, which is all the more lonely since his Eve is made of canvas and not flesh.
But there is a bit more at stake in the puppets. The 22 puppets (two life-sized), designed by New York-based puppet artist Ralph Lee, become stand-ins for the playwright as well as Finkelbaum’s friends and family. Gilles Segal is himself a survivor, a Romanian Jew who escaped the Nazis at age 10, even as his family was captured in Paris. Segal lived in Switzerland, before returning to Paris after the war had ended.
There is no indication that the play is based on any puppeteer in particular, but as Peter Sack suggested in his insightful January 1999 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, “On a String And a Prayer: A Holocaust survivor’s best friends are his puppets,” the story of “The Puppetmaster of Lodz” closely resembles that of Holocaust survivor and puppeteer Henryk Hajwentreger.
Russian soldier Popov (Daniel Damiano) tries to convince Finkelbaum (Zuckerman) to come out of his room. Image courtesy of Jim Baldassare Public Relations.
In his playwright’s note in the program to the play, Segal observes that 25 years ago – when he first began the play – “I wanted only to pose the question of guilt. I mean: Should Finkelbaum feel guilt at having survived? Because at the time I asked it of myself, like all those who had by some miracle escaped the ‘cataclysm.’ ”
Twenty-five years later, Segal sees a different significance to the work. “At that moment, the ‘thing’ appeared to be an accident of history, something unimaginable, a tremor of the Universe, a collapse of all values. This monstrosity will, at least let us hope, never be equaled. But now we attend upon little ones – mini-massacres, mini-detention camps, mini-torture, mini-genocide, mini-ethnic cleansing, mini-abominations.” All of a sudden Finkelbaum, Segal, Hajwentreger, the puppets and we, the viewers, begin to blur together.
Segal, echoing his character Finkelbaum, writes, “Facing the encroaching rise of barbarities we have an obligation to continue to live, to continue to sing, to be happy, to laugh, to laugh, to laugh!” And therein lies the absurdist angle in the play. Finkelbaum seems to be convinced his puppets are real, even after he admonishes his friend and fellow survivor Schwartzkopf (Herbert Rubens) for bursting his fantasy bubble. “Stop, Schwartzkopf, now I can’t pretend anymore,” he says. “You say to yourself, this poor Finkelbaum has gone mad. But you don’t say, let’s also play mad to bring him along. No, you push friendship to the point of wanting to really become mad!”
In fact, “it’s not enough to want to” go mad, “otherwise I would have gone mad a long time ago Lord knows, I’ve tried tried with all my might,” Finkelbaum tells Schwartzkopf.
The puppeteer is aware that his puppets are not his dead wife and friends, even as he tries to become mad enough that such a transmutation becomes possible. Yet, even if Finkelbaum claims he is sober and sane enough to know a puppet from a person, viewers must remember that he has locked himself in a room to escape the since-defeated Nazis.
Was he keeping the Nazis out, or himself in? Was he trying to bring back his dead family members, or was Finkelbaum trying to project the parts of his loved ones that he could retain – their voices, their memories – onto his puppets? There is perhaps an element of madness and fantasy in all artistry. Surely a puppeteer who survives Lodz by using his craft upon corpses for the sadistic pleasure of his guards can be forgiven and pitied for his extra dose of imagination.
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.