A resident of Albuquerque via the stages of Los Angeles, relatively recent New Mexico transplant Katrina Muldoon presents what could be one of the most ambitious performance undertakings in town this year: Phantom in the Third Reich is part staged reading, part play, part screenplay, part multimedia presentation, and entirely engrossing.
The story, which Muldoon referred to constantly as "the film" throughout the evening, is told via actors on the stage, a narrator setting the scene and projected pages of a storyboard. Muldoon and co-producer Kiko Sanchez have every intention of turning the piece into a finished feature film, and these staged productions are a result of Muldoon's intense champing at the bit to get the story into the world. With a talk-back afterward, it ran about four hours long—which meant, at a performance earlier this month at a church in Albuquerque, audiences didn't leave until nearly 11 pm. The energetic story, however, made it bearable.
A fictionalized account of a real life, Phantom shows how Marianne Strauss, a young woman from a well-known Jewish family in Essen, Germany, survived for two years during the Holocaust by charming and seducing the Nazis that were hunting her. Not only did she play her "woman card" and bat her eyelashes, but Strauss sometimes went so far as to suggest she was a spy who reported directly to Hitler, and she'd tell the Führer if his SS officers were behaving badly.
Seven years ago, Muldoon, while a student at Stanford University, discovered Marianne's story through the hefty biography The Past in Hiding by Mark Roseman. The story consumed Muldoon's life; while not of Jewish ancestry herself, she felt a deep connection to a woman finding a way to survive in a world ruled by men, and the conflict Strauss felt about her methods of survival.
Before the Strausses were deported, Marianne's wealthy businessman father donated great sums of money to the Nazi party in hopes of leniency; her family even inquired about joining the party at one point so that their lives would be spared. This saved them until August 1943, but ultimately Marianne was the only member of her family not placed on a transport to Auschwitz. She was able to do so by escaping her home as the armed SS guards directing them to pack their belongings momentarily stepped out of the room. (Sounds like something Muldoon made up for the movie; is actually true.)
Indeed, even I find myself calling it "the movie" or "the film" when I think about it. It was dressed in a play's clothing, but was not a play. Sometimes it worked; the use of projected drawings of how the scene will appear onscreen was a nice illustrative element when paired with actors on a stark stage. Sometimes, however, it hovered in a weird place between staged reading and full production that left me scratching my head.
When I asked Muldoon why she didn't make a play a play and a movie a movie, she (defensively, and reasonably so) countered that she spent 13 months writing the screenplay, and that surely turning it into a script would take the same amount of time over again, if not longer. That's much more time than she wants to spend on what is perhaps just a transitional period for the story. And it wasn't that it didn't work; but certainly there were moments it could have been easier to watch and to perform.
For example, near the beginning, the narrator reads, "The gestapo boys aim their guns"—and the two actors onstage (you guessed it) aim their guns. Or, when Marianne arrives at a neighbor's door, and a few-second "scene" onstage of her standing at the door is followed by a blackout, then the next "scene" shows her sitting in the living room—why not just walk in and sit down? Yes, it will be two shots in the film, but it doesn't need to be two scenes onstage. Additionally, Muldoon mined the film acting community in Albuquerque for the large cast, and some of the performers were clearly not as used to performing onstage and lacked the volume necessary to fill the performance space.
But ultimately, any reservations I had about the transition from screen to stage and back again were overshadowed by the engrossing story and remarkable dedication Muldoon, Sanchez and the huge team gave the project. As the story tumbled along, it perhaps jumped the shark a few times, but Muldoon assures me later it's still in development and after every performance they tweak lines or shift bits of the story. (I can't voice my biggest hang-ups without spoilers, so I'll just let you guess them when you see it.)
While the depictions of white-knuckle train rides in first-class cars with Nazi officers are engaging and flashy, perhaps most fascinating—both for Muldoon and for audiences—are the resulting musings on the things we do to save ourselves. The struggles against outside racism and oppression make for the framework of this story, but the internal conflict Strauss encountered and the guilt she faced for the rest of her life, until her death in 1996, lend the character and her story even more depth.
There's an entirely separate review to be written here, of course, about Muldoon's aforementioned Gentile background and the steps she and the cast took to respectfully depict a Jewish woman, as well as her own deeply considered reasons for devoting so much of her life to a story that, in many ways, is not hers to tell. (Notable, too, is Muldoon's prominent use of lines from "Lady Lazarus" by Sylvia Plath, almost self-referential to the appropriation conflict.)
The universal humanness of Marianne's struggle is what drew Muldoon in, though, and what makes the production fascinating no matter who you are; the clipping combination of epic poem, feminist anti-mythology and grisly history lesson is worth all 200-plus minutes.