Finkelbaum, a Polish Jew and a puppeteer, escaped a Nazi concentration camp near the end of World War II, and a sympathetic landlady gave him shelter in a lonely garret on the outskirts of Berlin. But now it’s 1950, and he’s still hiding behind his locked door, defying all her attempts to convince him that the war is over. He lives in his imagination, his puppets his only companions, his existence shadowed by memories of the camp.
It’s paradoxical and maybe profound: Only by keeping the war going can he maintain the cocoon of fantasy that allows him to hold its horrors at bay.
“The Puppetmaster of Lodz,” by Gilles Ségal, kicks off the Berkshire Theatre Group’s season at the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge. A few days before opening, director Brian Roff and lead actor Joby Earle were still adjusting the lines between delusion and reality in the play.
“I do think there are distortions, some of which are in Finkelbaum’s mind and some of which exist in that time of the story,” said Roff. “I think everything is real, but it should be magical, if that makes sense.”
At times Finkelbaum seems merely paranoid about being arrested by the Nazis, cagily eluding their “traps.” At other times he appears completely lost in his own psychological landscape, where his puppets are real, living, breathing people, including his wife.
Dark stuff, but leavened with comedy. Both Finkelbaum and his exasperated landlady, called the Concierge and played by Julia Gibson, seem to secretly enjoy their sparring through his closed door as she attempts to bring him to reality.
Concierge: “What do we have to do to convince you that the war is finished, finished!”
Finkelbaum: “Maybe if Stalin were to come himself and tell me in person!”
Concierge: “That’s it, I’ll write to him! In the meantime, I’m going to turn on the radio for the news. I’m going to turn it up so you can hear it!”
Finkelbaum: “You think that impresses me, your news? Where we were before, they fabricated plenty of other things beside the news!”
She retaliates by bringing to his door a series of visitors (all played by Lee Sellars), including a Russian and an American, to try to convince him of the truth. But Finkelbaum outwits them. It’s only when she brings a guest (Jesse Hinson) who knows the true story of Finkelbaum’s war that the situation begins to change.
Ségal, a Romanian Jew who became a Parisian actor and playwright as well as a disciple of Marcel Marceau, was a child when he lost his family to the Nazis in World War II. “The Puppetmaster of Lodz” made its American debut, in Sara O’Connor’s English translation, in 1988, several years after its French premiere.
Studying the objective history of the Holocaust can take a person only so far in understanding a survivor’s experience, Earle said. “That’s the main challenge: What would it be like to be on the inside of it?” said the actor, 28, who graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 2010. “I have a hard time talking about it in rehearsal, as does Brian. It’s actually one of the things the play has helped us do, is give words to it.”
For maximum impact, the two decided, Finkelbaum should be about the same age as Earle. One of the tragedies looming over the play is that he is still a young man in 1950, but his life seems to be over.
The role demands much of an actor. In addition to its emotional complexity, it requires considerable technical facility with the puppets, which were created for Berkshire Theatre Group by New York designer Emily DeCola.
Earle got puppeteering experience with a year in the Broadway production of “War Horse,” which he finished in January.
“I was literally inside the horse, surrounded by cane and aluminum,” he said. “What was visible to the audience was basically my legs.”
The technique he acquired through “War Horse” is helping him now in bringing these puppets to life, even though Finkelbaum’s puppets are the more traditional kind.
“The basic tenets are all the same,” Earle said. “The amount of care you put into these inanimate objects is the amount of life you will get back. And the first rule is they need to be breathing, and if they’re breathing, they come alive. And you try to let the puppet have its own life.”
It sounds esoteric, but Earle means “breathing” literally, a rhythmic pulse of life.
“When I was in the horse, it was with my knees, and when I’m with the puppets in this show, it’s a very slight movement of the hand. And boom, they come alive,” he said. “And especially for Finkelbaum, especially for where he’s at in his life, they need to be real people. It’s a comfort for him that they’re real people.”
Puppets come right after children and animals in the ranks of scene stealers. But this time, said Earle, that’s fine: “I guess we’re hoping that there’s times the audience’s focus is pulled by these things, and they have to remind themselves that it is just cloth and wood.”