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The Raleigh Ensemble Players cordially invites Triangle theatergoers to explore The Gardens of Frau Hess, Jewish playwright Milton Frederick Marcus' riveting R-rated two-character play inspired by an obscure historical footnote about the title character — the wife of Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess (1894-1987) — and a Jewish man from a concentration camp whom she hired to tend her garden. REP will stage the North Carolina premiere of The Gardens of Frau Hess, under the direction of Deb Royals, Feb. 12-28 in Artspace Gallery II in downtown Raleigh.
"In 1941," Royals says, "Rudolf Hess made a mysterious flight to England that resulted not only in his excommunication from the highest ranks of the Third Reich, but his lifelong imprisonment as well. His wife, Ilse (Betsy Henderson), continued to live at the family estate in Germany.
"In 1943, Frau Hess contacted her friend [Gestapo and SS chief Heinrich] Himmler," Royals says, "to find an expert to replace her gardener who had been drafted into the German Army. One at a time until she found the one to her liking, he sent her six candidates culled from the concentration camps, each with botanic experience. No other details of who went to her or what happened to them are known."
Royals says, "The Gardens of Frau Hess is a fictionalized story sprung up out of this piece of history. One of the candidates — Isaac Baum (Terry Milner) — formerly a horticulture professor at Leipzig, now an inmate at the Mauthausen death camp arrives and begins the task of tending to the garden. They are thrust into a situation where they begin to share and discover the deep secrets and weaknesses that surround their life. A situation not too hard for any of us to imagine... human beings in times of uncertainty cling to and feel compelled to share themselves as they find ways of fulfilling their needs for intimacy and survival."
Dramatists Play Service, Inc. adds, "[The Gardens of Frau Hess] is about two uniquely antithetical characters, a man and woman in complete cultural, religious and historical opposition, thrust together in a surprisingly seductive relationship. Frau Hess, the once proud figure of the upper-class social and political order of Germany now lives in the diminished state of her husband's exile. She deplores the lower-class Nazi hierarchy that has caused her fall and dreams of a resurgence. She is not what she appears or what we expect. When Isaac Baum enters her life, her racial and religious bigotry appears merely a class affectation, and soon her cold detachment turns into a warm and extremely intimate nature. Isaac Baum, who seems at first the downtrodden victim of Nazi persecution, ultimately reveals his true nature as the proud, conflicted Jew who renounced his identity in order to be a part of her world. As their relationship deepens, Frau Hess offers to help Isaac find his daughter, and Isaac ultimately professes his tortured desire and love for her. The final seduction, a climactic dans macabre, reveals and illuminates the true psyches and souls of these two most passionate antagonists."
What she likes most about this play, Deb Royals says, is it "forces you to reckon with the fact that you are human, with needs, desires, fears, secrets, and hopes. I feel like when persons with attachment to important periods of our world's history speak — that we should listen to what they are trying to say. So, with this as my impetus, I accepted the challenge to bring the story to life."
Besides Deb Royals, the production team for The Gardens of Frau Hess includes set and lighting designer Thomas Mauney, costume designer Diana Waldier, and sound designer Al Wodarski.
"We have forced ourselves," Royals says, "to reckon with how to tell a story placed in historical context yet fictional in its content. The costumes tell us period — the stylistic nature of gardens, shower, and bedroom must portray the escapes — the 'what can be and the what is' that exists outside this room where the two characters are trapped.'"
Royals says, "The interior room where the majority of the play takes place is stylistically surrounded by the outside world — places of escape — [but] their relationship constantly forces them back to the interior where they confront each other, share with each other, and hurt themselves and each other."
She says, "The lighting will work to enhance the interior and bring the escape areas awake. Additionally, the lighting will develop and create the garden over the course of the story and will be fully fleshed out by the story's end — thus enhancing the idea of the world surrounds us."
Royals notes, "Costumes will be realistic, underscoring the period in which the play takes place. Their colors will compliment the tones in the interior playing area."
In describing up the challenges inherent in staging The Gardens of Frau Hess, Deb Royals adds, "This play presented a particular challenge in regard to the relationship that evolves between the two characters. It was our goal to dig down deep and try and understand what this Jewish playwright was trying to say.
"At first glance," she says, "one might say that all there is here is a contrived story dealing with sexual tension and riddled with cliché metaphor. Deeper down though is the playwright's need to talk about human beings. How they deal with each other in extreme situations with attachments to strong beliefs and assumptions … and their basic needs... for preservation.
"Placing this as our production team goal," Royals says, "we were pushed past the cliché to a different understanding of a pretty obscure Jewish playwright's deep need to force us to reckon with the reality of our being 'stuck' here on this earth together — regardless of the horrible actions of our past or the things we do to each other as we move into the future."
Warning: This production contains adult situations and brief nudity.
Raleigh Ensemble Players presents The Gardens of Frau Hess Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 12-14, 19-21, and 26-28, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 22, at 3 p.m. in Artspace Gallery II (second floor), 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students with valid ID and $12 seniors over 60 and military personnel), except $25 Feb. 14 Valentine's day gala, with post-show reception and special door prizes, and Feb. 19 pay-what-you-can performance ($5 suggested minimum). Note 1: Group rates available. Note 2: There will be an audio-described and sign-language-interpreted performance — with Touch Tour, large-print and Braille programs, and new laptop captioning — starting at 7 p.m. Feb. 20. 919/832-9607 (TTY 835-0624) or http://www.realtheatre.org/HESSreservation.htm. http://www.realtheatre.org/pages/2004/shows/current2004.htm.