A Common Vision. By Neena Beber. Directed by Mary Coleman. Starring Anne Darrah, John Flanagan, Warren Keith, and Sally Dana. At the Magic Theater, Building D, Fort Mason, through Feb. 14. Call 441-8822.
Gilles Segal, like Eugene Ionesco, was born in Romania but settled in France. Unlike Ionesco, he was orphaned by Nazis during the Paris Occupation. Segal approaches horror like an absurdist: His elegant sense of balance lets him confront racism with circus clowns (in Monsieur Schpill et Monsieur Tippeton) and the Holocaust with puppets (in The Puppetmaster of Lodz, being powerfully revived at the Marin Theater Company). He was once a student of Marcel Marceau's, and even if you've been made permanently sick by Marceau's tragic-clown routine, Segal's work has its own tragicomic life.
The puppetmaster Finkelbaum is a Polish Jew holed up in the garret of a Berlin boardinghouse around 1950, patiently waiting for the end of World War II. He escaped from Birkenau in '45, and nothing his concierge hollers will convince him it's safe to come out. ("Fake newspapers," he answers, "that you have expressly printed up!") He lives in a world of crude puppets cut from material found in the garret, including a gaunt and faceless imitation of his wife that can lie in bed, sit up at the breakfast table, nod, and make funny noises. With her input, Finkelbaum works out the plot of a grand puppet show he'll perform after the war, telling the story of two Jews who marry and get sent, shortly afterward, to a concentration camp.
Matt Gottlieb looks and plays the part so well it's hard to believe he isn't European. Lanky, coarse-bearded, electric with sorrow, his Finkelbaum raves around the garret with the monomania of an ex-believing Jew who's rejected God because of the Nazis. He considers himself the only creator, but his world of stitched-together illusion lapses now and then into black-lit, jagged memories of Birkenau. ("And their strings crossed," he says cryptically, "and everything was shit.") Gottlieb has the range and humor to do Finkelbaum in half-lucid moments, lecturing his puppet wife on the necessity to "economize" during the war, as well as Finkelbaum crazy, hollering at his concierge and the others who try to convince him it's safe to come out. His voice has a bright, obnoxious Old World accent that belongs in a story by I.B. Singer; his movements are precise and expressive.
The concierge is also played nicely by Lucinda Hitchcock Cone. The doting German spinster's everyday worriment is a foil for Finkelbaum's madness, and Cone, who isn't nearly so old as her character, hunches gracefully into the role. She knocks on the door and peers through the keyhole now and then, interrupting his fantasy; she turns up a radio so he can hear the news, which he believes is fabricated. She eventually brings in a man called Weissmann, disguised as a Russian soldier, an American soldier, and a rabbi. (Weissmann is played by the versatile Remi Sandri.) Finkelbaum thinks each one is a fake, and Weissmann proves to be a Nazi-hunter who suspects Finkelbaum of being a former Birkenau guard.
This is where the show gets long. Weissman's elaborate theory fools everyone, including the concierge, but it's too much to swallow and too inconsequential to feel like anything but what it is, a setup for the end of the play. The intensity of Finkelbaum's madness, and Gottlieb's performance, get diluted by the plot complications. But the last scene, with Finkelbaum's old friend Schwartzkopf (Joe Bellan), has the necessary sense of stunned silence that should come with understanding that the war is really over and your wife, in fact, is dead.
Henryk Pijanowski served as technical adviser and puppetry consultant on the show -- he taught Gottlieb to work the strings -- and Nick Barone designed the puppets. Pijanowski was orphaned by Nazis in Poland at age 6; now he's a puppetmaster for Polish television. I imagine his advice influenced the heavy, wooden realism of the costumes and the set.
Barone's puppets are limited to the sort of thing Finkelbaum could have made in the garret. Most of them are stuffed human-sized dolls or plain hand-puppets -- disappointing, for a show called Puppetmaster -- but the rack of ghostlike prisoner-marionettes and tin, goose-stepping Nazis that Finkelbaum manipulates and cuts down with scissors is worth the price of admission.
One reason this play works so well is that Lee Sankowich's production doesn't try to communicate the full horror of a Nazi camp. That would be not just overbearing but impossible. "Everything was shit," is the closest Segal gets, verbally, to evoking Birkenau; the rest is anecdote and puppetry. The blithe and childish world of Finkelbaum's fantasy has more power to evoke the depths of the Holocaust than any adjective, and the production maintains the same respect for grief. Finkelbaum lapses only twice into his black-lit memories, but during the lapses a cross-hatched overlay of white light glares on the crisscrossed beams of his garret, suggesting that the room is never quite empty of nightmare. These touches give Puppetmaster a power Jim Henson couldn't have matched.
A Common Vision, on the other hand, is about UFOs. It follows a young woman out her bedroom window and into the beam of a flying saucer -- maybe -- and from there into hypnosis sessions with a psychiatrist, and from there into a weird encounter with two security guards who saw her levitating in her nightie. Not only is it not quite satirical, the play tries to draw tired parallels between UFOs and religion -- what if abduction is like a spacewalk for the soul! -- and then wonders why the bitter, narrow, skeptical world can't have a little more faith.
The crux of this story, too, is grief. Dolores' lover has left, and her odd levitation at the start of the play is either an abduction attempt by aliens or an illusion spun by her suffering heart. Dolores goes to a psychiatrist named Elliot Turner to get over her crisis. It's Elliot who suggests that her memories of levitation uncovered in hypnosis are signs of an abduction, and he milks her case for a controversial book. Dolores wants to ignore the whole issue, but two bodyguards come forward under unbelievable circumstances -- I think they recognize her through a window of Elliot's office -- to say they saw her levitate. Then she doesn't know what to think. Something about the language of the alien-abduction movement intrigues her, though. "The body is not what it seems," people in the movement like to say; and Dolores adds, "What about the things we can't see? ... Like our soul, do you believe we have one?"
This kind of thing is why skepticism was invented. Anne Darragh plays Dolores, returning to San Francisco after a long stint in New York; but I'm afraid the script won't let her live up to the reputation she established with the Eureka's Angels in America. The dialogue is ill-paced and jerky; the characters talk at cross-purposes, past each other, instead of finding a natural flow. Warren Keith is funny as Elliot, the bumbling psychiatrist, and Sally Dana plays a lively Janine, Dolores' crass girlfriend; but their performances are isolated landmasses of humor.
The simple problem is that the play lacks human interest. The playwright, Neena Beber, moves things forward on the assumption that we care whether Dolores really levitated; but we don't. The question is a rattling vehicle for Beber's hopeful suspicions about the soul, which in the old days -- like Finkelbaum's -- was a vexing question on its own.
-- Michael Scott Moore