Johnny Carson once commented sheepishly, “too soon,” after a Lincoln assassination joke fell flat. Artful Justice, billed as a comedy about what could happen if Hitler not only survived World War II, but also settled in the United States, feels like it’s too soon. There have been comedies that used elements of Adolph Hitler, World War II, even the concentration camps: Mel Brooks’ The Producers; Roberto Benigni’s 1997 Italian tragic-comic fantasia, Life Is Beautiful, among them.
Artful Justice, which is playing through July 26 as part of the Capital Fringe Festival 2015, bills itself as a dark alternative history. The 50-minute melodrama by Stefan Stoerzinger — a nom de plume for a District-based economist — is played with high irony for laughs, but at the Sunday noon performance, held in a back room of W.S. Jenks & Son Hardware on Bladensburg Road in Northeast Washington, the over-exaggeration and camp mostly fell flat.
As Hitler, Andrew Adams, high-stepping and high-strung with his slick black hair and bristle-brush mustache, sputtered, shouted and seethed as if he were addressing a Nazi rally or an audience of the Reichstag. His high-decibel, growling shouts uncomfortably filled the theater space with an off-putting presence. At one point he even mounted a chair in the audience to give the Nazi salute.
The show, a fiction of course, begins in Hitler’s bunker with the fuehrer dictating his last thoughts as he holds a gun to his head. But then, in a break with history, he puts the pistol down. The American government decides to try Hitler on U.S. soil in a civilian court to exhibit to the world, as the American government bureaucrat in the play states, “that the U.S. system of justice is enormously fair.” Because, with a Jewish attorney, he noted, Hitler would have no chance of winning.
Alas, lawyer Bernie Liebowitz (Mark Mumm, with an unconvincing Brooklyn accent) has an ax to grind against his anti-Semitic partners, who put him up to the case. So he’s determined to show them how a Jew can beat the
system. On the lam after he is freed, Hitler takes a loft in Greenwich Village and returns to his earlier profession,
The absurdities mount after Hitler picks up Greta (Shira Hereld) in a bar and they begin a relationship; she’s attracted to the former führer’s power and notoriety.
The Fringe, now a decade old in Washington, is known for providing a venue for alternative, even off-the-wall, artistic visions.
Artful Justice certainly fits the Fringe’s mission. While it deals baldly and boldly with a reimagining of the historic Hitler, the play is not actually about Hitler. Rather, as the playwright stated in his program notes, it mostly aims its barrel at taking down America, its society and its politics. Hitler, the writer claims, serves merely as the lens through which he can deflate the American political, judicial and electoral systems. So Artful Justice is America’s worst nightmare: what could happen if Hitler were found innocent and ran for public office in the United States? It’s a frightening — and, thankfully, absurd — thought. And it’s hard to say how many might want to see this nightmare in action. It’s still too soon.
Artful Justice, Capital Fringe Festival, selected dates through July 26, W.S. Jenks & Son Hardware, Washington. Tickets: $17, plus $7 Fringe button. Call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.capitalfringe.org.