Inspired by her family’s personal history, playwright Tania Wisbar’s The Red Dress dramatizes the post-World War I era in Germany with the subsequent rise of the Nazi Party. The story focuses on the romance between a film star and a shattered officer with an artistic bent. In the passionate drama, Alexandra Schiele (Laura Liguori), known as the “Face of Germany” for her many starring roles, meets Franz Weitrek (J.B. Waterman) in a bar owned by her friend Sybil Stein (Rebecca Larsen) in the desperate post-war days of hunger and unemployment. The former soldier earns a pittance by drawing pencil sketches of dead soldiers for their loved ones. Watching him work in Sybil’s bar, Alexandra is attracted to him when he undertakes to make a portrait for Rachel (Shanti Reinhardt), a grieving mother, from the only photograph she has of her dead son.
With her studio connections, Alexandra is able to give Franz an entrée into the world of film, where he rises rapidly. His success comes to the attention of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who honors him with an award that leads to an incident that puts Alexandra into the clutches of a nasty Nazi apparatchik, Officer Dieter Keller (Dylan Wittrock), a character straight out of central casting, complete with a riding crop used to intimidate, as well as to punctuate his stern dictates. Why did this happen? How? Alexandra’s prominence, her background, her marriage and the Nazi’s relentless pursuit of an ethnically pure German state puts her into a jeopardy she could not have imagined.
Ms. Wisbar’s play chronicles the aftermath of the most horrible war in the history of the world up to that point, its effect on all of the German people, and the remorseless, incremental rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, reflected in the impact it has on two individuals. The love story that starts out so sweetly ends with a shattering array of choices, none of which lead to happiness. Those who know their history will leave the theatre with a certain dread.
Although the characters as written are thinly drawn, the excellent cast creates believable individuals who struggle with each other and against the times. The pace of the show languishes in the first act, but picks up considerably in the passionate second.
The production, directed by Kiff Scholl, supports the playwright’s intention with a fine flexible set by Pete Hickock, (lighting by Kelley Finn). The projections by designer Nick Santiago are terrific, showing images and film clips of World War I, as well as those from the period of the play. Sound designer Dave B. Marlin’s use of romantic German orchestral music composed by Karen Martin has a subtle irony. And the costumes by Shon LeBlanc are period perfect.
The Red Dress is a visiting production at Odyssey Theatre. It is produced by Racquel Lehrman and Victoria Watson, Theatre Planners, for Argyle Road Productions. The show runs through November 18 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles.