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Theater Review: ‘Playing Leni’

The story of filmmaker and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl isn’t the easiest to tell. How dark comedy ‘Playing Leni’ made it to the stage.

After 15 years, one production, one staged reading and two writers, David Robson’s true vision for a play exploring the chameleon-like personality of influential filmmaker and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl is finally coming to the stage.

It just took reconnecting with an old friend to make it happen — and a whole lot of work.
About five years ago, the Delaware County Community College professor sent some sketches to Philly-based Madhouse Theater Company, without any inclination that his former college buddy, John Stanton, was co-founder of the company.

When they decided to meet in a Center City coffee shop, Robson mentioned his long-defunct script about the post-WWII interrogation of Riefenstahl, which had a small production but hit a dead end. Stanton was fascinated by the concept and began writing a campy Riefenstahl character that appeared in Madhouse’s Late Night Cabaret. “With that subject matter, I could only poke fun for so long,” says Stanton. “I felt funny about continuing the campy humor without any foot in reality, but I thought the project was more than my one brain could handle.”

Soon Robson and Stanton had co-authored a full-length dark comedy. “Leni i’s this woman that has worn many masks throughout her life. She’s had to be a lot of things to a lot of different people to survive as an artist in Nazi Germany,” says Robson. “But there needs to be a moment where all of the masks are off, and she’s forced to confront the reality of what Hitler did.”