If there is one filmmaker whom many cineastes love, and also love to hate, it's probably Leni Riefenstahl. Her movie glorifying Hitler's Third Reich, Triumph of the Will, stands to this day as a monumental achievement in cinematography and a craven tribute to a certifiable monster.
So how does one sort out the art from the artifice, or appreciate inspired innovation while ignoring squalid inhumanity on a massive scale? Jordan Harrison's Amazons and Their Men, now being produced by convergence-continuum, touches on those ideas, and several more, in its jam-packed 90 minutes.
Indeed, the script by Harrison is so continually fascinating that a spotty performance by con-con's four-person cast doesn't create many obstacles — although it would certainly help if this production had been done in an appropriate period style with crisp comic timing.
The Riefenstahl character, dubbed the Frau, is feverishly at work on a pet film project as the world teeters on the brink of World War II. It is a version of Heinrich von Kleist's Penthesilea, about that mythological Amazon warrior queen who was killed by Achilles.
Harrison skillfully weaves that gory story into a behind-the-scenes retelling of the Riefenstahl shoot, as the Frau directs her actors while fending off subtly threatening telegrams from the Reich's minister of propaganda, Josef Goebbels. She is justifiably worried that if Goebbels gets involved, the Nazi machine will turn her love story into a battle epic, one more thrust at ginning up the German people for the coming war.
In the Frau's company of players are the Man (who plays Achilles), the Extra (her sister, who initially plays Achilles' pal Patroclus and who always dies in each of the Frau's films), and the Boy (a young man delivering those telegrams to the set, and who is cast as Patroclus when sis can't handle it).
As the Extra pushes the Man around on a rolling platform, he intones his lines with great import while the Frau directs and kvetches from the sidelines.
The florid storyline of the myth is juxtaposed against the very real drama affecting the actors. The Man is played by a Jew who is being granted shelter from the Nazis while the film is being shot. And he soon falls in love with the Boy, a fetching and thoroughly amenable Gypsy fellow. Thus, three of the primary targets of Nazi oppression are represented as pawns in this movie-within-a-play-within-a-movie-shoot.
Overall, the con-con cast delivers the lines with intelligent readings but without conveying a definitive sense of time and place. That kind of stylized approach, embodying an arch 1930s German cinematic flair, would require a delicate balance. But the acting here often tips towards campy "bad actor" performances (as in Waiting for Guffman).
That said, Clint Easton gives the Man a buff and manly aura, although his double-cast moments as Goebbels are a hot guttural mess. Jack Matuszewski is properly innocent and cowed as the Boy until a late transformation. As the Extra, Jaclyn Cifranic gets some chuckles as she describes, and then enacts, her character's penchant for glorious dying scenes.
In the central role of the Frau, Lauri Hammer works hard to achieve a satisfactory dominatrix vibe on the movie set, while showing her character's more vulnerable side in her scenes with Achilles. But Hammer's flat Midwestern delivery and an unsteadiness with lines prevent her from rising to the statuesque level one would expect. Thus, the mixture of fear and low comedy the Frau should generate is mostly absent.
Still, the script carries the day for this production, shifting back and forth through real and imagined characters who face actual and mythological promises of love and threats of annihilation.
When the war began, Riefenstahl destroyed her Penthesilea script and the negatives she had shot. But hats off to playwright Harrison, and convergence-continuum, for enabling us to dip back into that moment.
Amazons and Their Men
Through August 30, The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., 216-687-0074, convergence-continuum.org.