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Dancing with the Devil - The Blue Light

VANCOUVER, BC: My favorite type of play is one that stimulates a spirited debate about a complex subject. The Blue Light by playwright Mieko Ouchi, directed by Donna Spencer at the Firehall Arts Centre does just that. The production is an engrossing exploration of the cinematographic career of Leni Riefenstahl, that asks perplexing and enduring questions about art and artist. Can one separate the artist from her art? Is it possible to despise the artist's proclivities yet admire the work they create? Can one admire technical and creative genius while despising the use to which this talent is put? And if one can intellectually think about art as a product distinct from artist and context, should one do so?

Ouchi locates these questions in an imaginary meeting between Riefenstahl, towards the end of her life, and a female Hollywood film producer. Riefenstahl has presented the producer with a proposal for a new film. She hopes that since they are both women who have achieved a measure of success in a male dominated profession, the producer will approve her proposal. Riefenstahl was blacklisted after the end of the Second World War because she was considered a Nazi sympathizer and her films made for Hitler were used for propaganda.

Riefenstahl is played by Gabrielle Rose, in a superb performance in which she weaves her portrayal of the aged Riefenstahl into flashbacks of the child eager to please her stern yet affectionate father, a young woman seeing her brother off to war, a dancer and actress in Arnold Fanck's mountain films, and a brilliant driven film maker, who uses her talents to make propaganda films for Goebbels and Hitler.

The other four cast members play multiple roles in this production. Among the most interesting performances is Jack Paterson's Hitler. Since surely everyone in the audience will be familiar with images and probably movie footage of Hitler, it is quite a challenge to portray him without being a caricature. Also, despite the fact that most people would think of Hitler as repulsive for what he represents, in this play Riefenstahl's fascination with him and her deference to him has to be made believable. Quite a task.

Riefenstahl was a talented documentary filmmaker. Her documentary Triumph of the Will, won international awards for innovation yet it glorified Hitler and was one of the Nazi party's most effective propaganda tools.

So is an artist responsible for how his creation is used? This question reminds me of a very disturbing play, The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh. In it he asks whether a writer should or should not be held culpable if someone else uses his ideas for harmful purposes. Unlike McDonagh's protagonist, Riefenstahl knew how her documentaries were to be used; to glorify Hitler and the Nazi Party. So the question becomes whether, if she really knew the truth about what was happening in Germany, she would still have been driven to make her films. Although Riefenstahl denied to her death that she knew what Hitler and his people were doing, it is hard to believe that such a highly intelligent observant woman who knew Hitler and top Nazi officials could be unaware of the evil that was being committed by those glorified by her work.

In The Blue Light, named for the first film that Riefenstahl made as a director, Spencer and her ensemble cast provide a thought-provoking evening of theatre.