Insight Out's Leni is the second production in recent months to find inspiration in the life of the controversial German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Riefenstahl, of course, famously directed propaganda films for Hitler, yet until her death maintained that her only objective was to make good films, and that she had no idea what the Nazis were doing). The first, Fever Theater's Mitlaufer, presented Riefenstahl as the prototypical naïf, an artist who refused to confront reality, and cleverly showed how such a person could be manipulated and used for other, more sinister purposes.
Insight Out's Leni takes an equally creative approach: The story is told as though Riefenstahl were directing a movie about herself. There are two Lenis, one old, one young, and the show begins with the elderly Leni directing her young self through a scene in which she has tea with Hitler, and explores the charges of collaboration levied against Riefenstahl. This device allows the actors to skip from scene to scene and comment on the action, and to offer two different perspectives on Riefenstahl's complicated history. It also lets the audience see a version of Riefenstahl in which she's doing what she loves, directing, instead of simply focusing on her collaborating with the Nazis.
The production takes place in one of the Academy Theater's movie halls, an unusual setting that works quite well here. The screen is used to show clips from Riefenstahl's films (Triumph of the Will, Olympia), which are quite compelling; the chance to see Riefenstahl's work on a big screen is almost worth the price of admission. In fact, at times Riefenstahl's films were more compelling than the actual live actors.
Though the two actors bear more than a passing physical resemblance to one another, there is such a discrepancy between the way the women portray the character that it's impossible to believe they might be the same person. Cecily Overman's Leni is young, yes, and eager to please, but also self-possessed and ambitious, while JoAnn Johnson gives a performance that is by turns strident and maudlin, leaping from one vocal register to the next as she toes the line between histrionics and schizophrenia. Many people in the audience seemed to find her quite funny, judging from the chuckles that her campy performance elicited; personally, I couldn't decide if it was a case of over-acting or over-directing, but there was definitely some "over" going on.
Insight Out gets mad props for the way this show is presented. It's a nice little trick, making Leni Riefenstahl direct herself in her own movie. The inconsistent performances left something to be desired, but it's nonetheless a clever conceit that is, for the most part, well executed.