REVIEW! Hitler’s Tasters by Michelle Kholos Brooks @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Directed by Sarah Norris
Presented by New Light Theater Project
Greenside (Infirmary Street)

2nd – 24th August

Mary Katherine Kopp, Kaitlin Paige Longoria, and Hallie Griffin in Hitler’s Tasters. Image courtesy of Hunter Canning

Here’s the thing: for undergrad, I did a triple major in History, German Language & Culture, and Theatre Studies. Has this combination ever really come in useful? Until now, no, but when I saw the description of this show, I thought my moment had finally come. As it turned out, you don’t really need to know that much about German or History to understand Hitler’s Tasters. This disappointed me a little (as well, I suspect, as the American lady in the queue in front of me who promised her son that this would be an historically educational experience), but even if there wasn’t too much there to stimulate my German/History nerdery, it was still an engaging and technically interesting piece of theatre.

A new play by American playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks, Hitler’s Tasters follows the story of four girls – Hilda, Margot, Anna, and Liesel – who were conscripted to serve their country as tasters for the Fuehrer. It is true that there were a number of such women during WWII who were selected for this role of sampling all Hitler’s meals before he touched them, to check that the food was safe from poison, and one of them (the only survivor) was called Margot; but that’s about as far as the historical accuracy of this play stretches. Everything else is highly stylised invention, dressed in a superficial understanding of German history and culture.

This lack of historical accuracy, however, is something embraced by the play, which is more focused on exploring a thematic concept. To this end, it merges a historical setting with very modern elements, to create a strangely effective atmosphere of timelessness. The girls snap selfies on their phones and then gossip about the attractiveness of Clark Gable; they dance frenetically to electronic pop, then fret over how Aryan they are, and how marriageable. They spend interminably slow hours locked in a room, waiting for symptoms of poison to manifest, and they fill this time with exactly what you’d expect of teenaged girls from any era. They snipe, gossip, play Truth or Dare, braid each other’s hair, swap confessions and fears, philosophise about life and death, and descend into giggling fits of ecstasy over male celebrities. There are power plays, spiteful insults, and betrayals… as well as declarations of sisterhood and support. Each girl is given a distinctive personality, which the talented actors fine-tune and portray with skill. There is an interesting interplay between stereotypical teenaged girl cattiness and the undercurrents of very real  social danger – the knowledge hanging in the air that if one of these girls were to turn on another and report her for social non-conformity, the consequences would be much more serious than the normal high school ostracism.

Image courtesy of Hunter Canning

At first I found it a very distracting stylistic choice to have all the girls speak in heavy American accents, with heightened “valley girl” vocal inflections. I reasoned that it was probably to help the audience draw parallels with modern pop culture texts such as Mean Girls, and the image of the millennial teenaged girl which is distilled in its most concentrated and exaggerated form in American media. Upon realising that it was an entirely American production, with American actors and having toured in America, I now wonder if this was simply intended to be a functionally invisible accent choice, as Southern English accents probably would be if it were a British production. If so, that’s an interesting side effect of having taken the play trans-Atlantic, and not necessarily a negative one. I would, however, advise that the director and cast should do a quick bit of research into the pronunciation of those occasional German words sprinkled throughout – mainly for “father” and “mother” – as they sounded quite ridiculous spoken in American.

A stylistic choice that I did really enjoy was the abstract nature of the framing scenes; these were used to represent the actual meal tasting, which was presented as highly ritualised, with slickly choreographed physical movement and unsettling sound and lighting effects (kudos here to choreographer Ashlee Wasmund and production manager Christina Tang). Overall, the production values of this show were excellent, maintaining a consistent high quality throughout, from usage of the stage space through to the costume design. Sarah Norris is to be congratulated on her tight direction and evocative interpretation of the text. It is particularly relevant to us today to be reminded that fascism and far-right brainwashing can happen so insidiously that the end results just look like normal people; these young girls are both victim and complicit, and remain emphatically human throughout.

Kaitlin Paige Longoria and Hallie Griffin in Hitler’s Tasters. Image courtesy of Hunter Canning

Overall, I do realise that my gripes with Hitler’s Tasters are very subjective, and largely due to expectations of historical interest which the show never actually promised me. In the end, I’m sure the young boy in front of me in the line learned some snippets of history – even if it was just that Hitler was a vegetarian and loved his dog, that teaches the important lesson that evil doesn’t always seem it. Even though I think there was a missed opportunity for more historical, political, and social complexity within the text, this play still demonstrates the importance of empathy and trust, independent thinking, and bravery.

Tickets

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Previous review: Knot by Nikki & JD @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

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