Review: “Hitler’s Tasters”

Hitler’s Tasters at Northlight Theater (Photo by Hunter Canning)

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts,
9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through July 14
Tickets: $32-$46
Phone: 847-673-6300

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater critic

Not knowing much in advance about “Hitler’s Tasters,” I expected New Light Theater Project’s production of Michelle Kholos Brooks’ play to be an historical drama about the young women who were enlisted to taste Adolph Hitler’s food during World War II to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. This was especially true because I’d heard that it was based on the experiences of Margot Wölk, the only one of fifteen such women to survive the war–who didn’t reveal her experiences until 2012 when she was 95 years old. (She died in 2014.)

However, historical accuracy isn’t at all what Brooks’ has in mind. A girl named Margot (Hannah Mae Sturges) does show up more than halfway through the 90-minute work, but we don’t learn much of anything about her background. She’s just thrown into what resembles a surreal bunker to replace a young woman named Anna (Kaitlin Paige Longoria), who has mysteriously disappeared—after we’ve found out enough about her to be able to speculate why.

Brooks’ goal, bolstered by obvious references to our own time, seems to be to illuminate the banality of evil and illustrate how easy it is for the gullible to buy into it, to be seduced by someone or something they believe is more powerful and important than they are.

Besides Anna, the young women at the outset are Hilda (MaryKathryn Hopp) and Liesel (Hallie Griffin). Though they’re dressed in vaguely period costumes (by Ashleigh Poteat), we first see them posing for selfies and wishing they were allowed to make calls on their cell phones. They resemble stereotypical modern teenagers with Hilda being the “mean girl” who taunts Anna and Liesel acting as conciliator. Even the music is contemporary, including Madonna and some odd folk with harrowing lyrics.

At the same time, the girls’ preoccupations are firmly rooted in the 1940s. They’re obsessed with American movie stars like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and even more with Hitler and his German Shepherd  Blondi, whom they desperately hope to meet. They consider it an honor to have been chosen for the job and a blessing to be served three meals a day—even if they are vegetarian (because Hitler was)– during wartime when so many are starving.

They can’t really enjoy those meals, however, because the threat of death hangs over every one. The playwright and director Sarah Norris dramatize this with ritualized movement and stark lighting (by Christina Tang) to indicate when meals are served, the girls eating them, and a buzzer ringing to indicate the hour-long post-meal danger period has passed. There also are periodic dances around the table and three chairs and onstage costume changes to mark one day passing into the next, though it’s not totally clear whether the women are confined on the premises or get to go home at night.

In between their mealtime ordeals, the girls—who often come across as very young, vacuous teenagers—are often bored. They gossip, giggle, bicker, primp, talk about the guards’ looks, cross-examine each other about sex, and loll about. Hilda, especially, brags about her “vater,” an important officer, and denigrates Anna, suggesting she looks Jewish and castigating her for once having a Jewish friend.

Particularly after Margot replaces Anna, their mood turns darker. They worry about the outcome of each meal, think about what it means to be dead, and consider the possibility of an antidote. Despite justifying their “patriotic” existence, they begin to wonder why they’re actually there. In Anna’s case, the reason has to do with sexual abuse. Only later do we -–and Hilda—get a less heroic picture of her father.

Although the acting is good all around—good enough that the girls can be very irritating—Brooks’ play misses the mark. Her characters’ boredom rubs off, with the repetitive action and conversations becoming tedious rather than building tension. The idea of using anachronisms to connect with our own time has its moments, but it also deprives the women of specificity, so that we feel like we’re watching generic types rather than delving into the lives of real people. In fact, their fear and dread—both immediate and perhaps existential—never comes across. In the end, I think I would have preferred a docudrama.