Poet's theatrical look at the Nazis' last days

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The Fuehrer Bunker Play by W. D. Snodgrass. Directed by Carl Weber. Music and chorus supervision by Richard Peaslee In some notes on "The Fuehrer Bunker," his new play at The American Place Theater, W. B. Snodgrass writes: "The Nazis -- like some others one may have encountered -- often did or said things to disguise from the world, sometimes from themselves, their real actions and intentions. My aim is to investigate the thoughts and feelings behind the public facade which made those actions necessary or even possible."

Hence the introspective nature of the stage work Pulitzer Prize poet Snodgrass has adapted from his 1977 "Cycle of Poems in Progress," as the collection was subtitled. The adaptation directed by Carl Weber labors to realize by means of theatrical techniques the freely rendered word portraits of the original. Mr. Snodgrass based the poems on extensive researches, including an interview with Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, friend, and latterly armaments chief. Speer has been dropped from the present version, thus depriving the script of the useful services of a detached commentator.

Though it may seem a contradiction in terms, "The Fuehrer Bunker" achieves more in the way of theatrical effect than in dramatic impact. (Perhaps the focal tone peom should have been presented at a staged reading.) Mr. Weber and an uncredited designer have transformed the American Place auditorium into a patch of rubble-strewn devastation -- the Berlin landscape of April 1945.

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Sections of seats have been replaced with casually strewn refuse. Mannequins embellish the scene. A limp parachute and a corpse hang from an overhead grid. In the fashion of environmental theater, the audience finds itself amid an assortment of playing areas, representing the rooms of the bunker. A roofed pit suggests the Fuehrer's lair itself.

The progress of the drama consists chiefly of a series of monologues in which those closest to Hitler at the end reveal their thoughts and feelings, their moral blindness and capacity for betrayal. Richard Peaslee's percussive score punctuates the prose and verse recitations. A largely unseen chorus gives voice to the misery and suffering that confront the world outside the bunker.

Within the concrete redoubt, Martin Bormann (Larry Block) types repulsively mushy letters to his wife. Heinrich Himmler (Thomas Carson) calculates his horoscope, soaks his feet in a basin, and complains of the fate that has overtaken him. Joseph Goebbels (Paul Collins) sums up his career in sardonic rhymed couplets while wife Magda (Catherine Byers) recalls her calculated infidelities and irrationally rationalizes the imminent poisoning of the Goebbels' children. The bloated Hermann Goering (Jerome Dempsey) retains his arrogance along with his avoirdupois.

In a couple of chilling scenes, Eva Braun (Annette Kurek) sings snatches of "Tea for Two," while recounting how she defied Hitler, and muses on her wedding. Finally, the Fuehrer (Robert Stattel) yearns for "a little chocolate cake" and delivers a madman's litany, using an adding machine to help calculate the 50 million human beings for whose deaths he has been responsible.

"The Fuehrer Bunker" unfolds with considerable verbal resourcefulness as Mr. Snodgrass seeks to probe the motivations of these depraved human specimens. The actors do all possible justice to the isolated soliloquies. The problem is that , except for such passing scenes as Goering's conversations with himself and the choral interludes, the play lacks any element of conflict. The characters have no contact with one another. Carl Low, as the wearily disillusioned Col. Gen. Gotthard Heinrici, also serves as occasional narrator. But Mr. Snodgrass has supplied no substitutes for the parenthetical documentation and Brechtian labels that helped orient the reader of his published poem. Notwithstanding its enhancements -- including K. L. Fredericks's costumes -- "The Fuehrer Bunker" proves considerably less tha n stimulating.

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