In puppet shows, the puppeteer creates and controls an entire world. In "The Puppetmaster of Lodz" -- a disturbing, thought-provoking play about the Holocaust -- the puppeteer does this, too. But he does so to hide from a world he no longer understands and cannot bear to face.
Written by a French actor and playwright named Gilles Segal, this moving drama marks the local debut of the Performance Workshop Theatre Company, a Pennsylvania company that relocated to Baltimore.
Part of the Performance Workshop's mission is educational; it offers weekday matinees to schools and discussion groups after some Sunday matinees. Despite uneven elements, if this first play, directed by Marlyn G. Robinson, is typical fare, then this is a company worthy of serious consideration.
The action takes place in 1950 in a Berlin boarding house, evocatively depicted in Dennis Livingston and Greggory Schraven's set design. There Samuel Finkelbaum, a Polish Jew who escaped from a concentration camp, has been holed up in a fourth-floor room for five years, unable to believe the war is over.
At the start of the play, Finkelbaum's concerned but frustrated landlady leaves groceries outside his door and, in a ritual she has clearly repeated for years, tries to convince him that he is no longer a hunted man.
Played by Paris Obligin, this landlady seems to represent the voice of reason, whereas Marc Horwitz's suspicious but oddly pleasant Finkelbaum seems paranoid, if not unbalanced. This perception increases when he talks to, caresses and even feeds a life-sized puppet he treats as his wife.
Yet part of the eerie magic and complex logic of this play is that it tests our definitions of reason and sanity.
In the early going, these twists and turns would have more impact if Horwitz speeded up Finkelbaum's painstaking daily rituals. Later, they would be more effective if the playwright hadn't felt the need to insert a character (Roman Gusso) who appears in various guises. When this mystery man's purpose is eventually revealed -- he's here to cast doubt on Finkelbaum's identity -- it feels like a cheap, frivolous trick in a play that is anything but.
Still, the production contains many haunting images, augmented by the puppets designed and built by Pennsylvania's Mum Puppettheatre. Finkelbaum is creating a puppet show out of his life story -- from his marriage to his concentration camp assignment of burning bodies.
Two images, in particular, take your breath away. The first comes when Finkelbaum turns his bed on its side, revealing a row of prison-garbed puppets, suspended behind the fence-like bedsprings. As he calls their names in the roll, he cuts the puppets down, one by one. The second image occurs when the landlady produces a final visitor (Donald Hart) who at long last seems to convince Finkelbaum that the war has ended. Preparing to leave, Finkelbaum begins burning his concentration camp puppets -- a brief but unsettling moment that this production wisely does not overstate.
Although "The Puppetmaster of Lodz" takes some missteps, one of the things it gets just right is a deliberate and stimulating touch of ambiguity at the end.
Ultimately, the question of whether Finkelbaum leaves is of less significance than whether it is he -- or the outside world -- that has gone mad.
This is challenging fodder for discussion groups, and it's challenging fodder for the stage as well.
Where: Performance Workshop Theatre Company at Catonsville Community College, Fine & Performing Arts Center, 800 S. Rolling Road, Catonsville
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through March 26
Call: (410) 659-7830