Theatre Preview: Heil The Blue Light

By Garth Paulson

Mieko Ouchi’s latest play, The Blue Light, holds a dubious distinction at this year’s Enbridge playRites Festival. The production is undeniably the festival’s serious offering. Though every play featured this year explores some deep issues, nothing else dives into waters quite so deep as Nazism and the role of the artist in society.

The Blue Light tells the life story of Leni Riefenstahl, a German filmmaker who directed some of the most technically innovative films of her time. Too bad they happened to be Nazi propaganda. Switching between actual events Riefenstahl lived through and a fictitious modern setting where an elderly Riefenstahl pitches a new movie to a Hollywood exec, The Blue Light could have easily gone awry. Despite the shifting narrative and controversial subject matter, the play succeeds marvelously. In addition to being playRites’ serious play it is also likely it’s best.

The Blue Light deserves such lofty praise because of the way everything comes together seamlessly. This is possible because the script Ouchi has crafted is truly remarkable. She effortlessly handles the time shifts and larger-than-life characters residing in her work. The play neither condemns nor condones Riefenstahl’s actions. Instead, it presents arguments from both sides of the debate, leaving audiences to figure things out themselves. Even when Ouchi’s own thoughts creep into the story towards the end, it doesn’t become cheesy thanks to a notable lack of soapboxes.

As excellent as Ouchi’s script is, a play featuring the type of characters The Blue Light does couldn’t possibly succeed without an outstanding cast. Fortunately, the production scores again in this department. Kate Hennig plays Riefenstahl perfectly. Somehow she manages to nail Riefenstahl’s character, which is a commendable feat considering Riefenstahl is one of the most ambiguous personalities in film history. Hennig’s task is made all the more difficult through having to essentially play two characters. As a young Riefenstahl she is fiery, self-interested, idealistic and passionate whereas the elder Riefenstahl is frail and bitter but still stubborn.

Hennig’s supporting cast is equally noteworthy. Duval Long had possibly the hardest job of anyone in playing Hitler–and in a humourous bit of irony, Walt Disney–but he made portraying the dictator’s eerie charisma and explosive temper look simple. Natascha Girgis also excels in her role as the Hollywood executive reviewing Riefenstahl’s pitch. This character could have easily been written off as a mere plot device enabling Ouchi to present the various arguments for and against Riefenstahl. Fortunately, Girgis imbues the character with a pragmatic charm and corporate wit turning the most easily discarded character into The Blue Light‘s most well-rounded.

Despite Girgis’ mastery of her roll, if one criticism must be launched against the play it would have to be the inclusion of the made up Hollywood meeting. Riefenstahl’s life and story is powerful and provoking enough to have stood on its own, without adding elements of fiction to it.

Despite this minor quibble, The Blue Light is still an unabashed success. Even though it might be a bit heavier than the rest of the material, it’s the must see production of this year’s playRites festival.