How fortunate for playwrights in search of a dominant dead woman to kick around that there will always be Leni Riefenstahl. With her artistic ego, Nazi connections and forceful female personality, the German actress-filmmaker proves irresistible to Jordan Harrison, who makes her a metaphor, in “Amazons and Their Men,” for theatrical narcissism, Nazi cruelty and female envy of pure gay love. Despite his glib psychosexual politics, scribe makes clever work of Riefenstahl, imagined here as an egomaniacal film director who has cast herself as Penthesilea, the Amazon warrior queen who falls in love with her enemy.
Harrison (“Doris to Darlene, a Cautionary Valentine”) has a valid point to make about high-minded artists who are quick to sacrifice their ethics for personal ego gratification. But it’s hard to give serious thought to the issue when Ken Rus Schmoll has directed the four-member ensemble to camp it up until they drop.
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As the Riefenstahl character (diminished here to “the Frau”), Rebecca Wisocky hits the ground running. Eyes popping and jaw thrust out in the overwrought manner of a silent screen star, the statuesque performer strikes every rigid pose in her repertoire to play a supremely egotistical commercial artist determined to make a work of “pure art.”
Ignoring the storm clouds of war (it’s 1939, and Hitler is about to march into Poland), Wisocky’s Frau frantically initiates filming of Kleist’s romantic tragedy “Penthesilea,” casting herself in the title role.
In a cost-cutting move that proves to be her undoing, the imperious director hires a Jew to play the heroic Achilles (identified only as “the Man” and played by Brian Sgambati) and a young Gypsy for the role of faithful Patrocles (called “the Boy” and played by Gio Perez). Once these two start smooching in the moonlight, the jealous Frau sends them both to their doom.
As a Greek chorus of one, “the Extra” (downtown’s darling, Heidi Schreck) plays it to the comic hilt, whether she has to impersonate an entire legion of Amazon soldiers or all the brave warriors who fall on the battlefield of Troy. “I have a talent for dying inconspicuously,” she modestly acknowledges.
In those real-life moments between the Frau’s melodramatic scene takes, the Extra (who turns out to be the Frau’s sister) is the only one who breaks character to speak her mind. Without losing her comic grip, Schreck intelligently makes the most of these precious asides, informing anyone willing to listen that the German army is on the march, war is in the wind, and this movie is toast.
Harrison obviously wants the Frau to remain fixated on her filmmaking and oblivious to her sister’s warnings, rather than engaging in any serious debate about what’s happening in the real world. That’s his artistic prerogative. But it cramps his actors, limits his central character as a grotesque idiot and reduces his play to a spottily amusing camp joke.
Technically, the Clubbed Thumb production is the very model of small-stage efficiency and impact, from the tongue-in-cheek costume designs (Kirche Leigh Zeile) to the imaginative use of rolling platforms (Sue Rees) and intensely focused lighting (Garin Marschall). But for all the good stuff that went into the show, the unrelenting archness of the production style overwhelms it all.