Melodrama threatens to overpower timely questions raised in 'Aunt Raini'

Michael Torsch and Heidi Fellner.

Michael Torsch and Heidi Fellner.

As the presidential election at long last looms, the central question raised by Aunt Raini is acutely relevant. Inspired by the life of filmmaker/actress/Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, the play considers whether uncritically documenting a demagogue is tantamount to being complicit in his abuses of power. Unfortunately, though, playwright Tom Smith surrounds that question with distracting and implausible melodrama.

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Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is currently presenting the professional premiere of the play, which gives Riefenstahl (Maggie Bearmon Pistner) a fictional grand-niece named Katherine (Heidi Fellner). Elderly and in ailing health, the nicknamed "Aunt Raini" travels from Germany to visit Katherine in New York City, and complications ensue when it's revealed that her true identity has been kept hidden from Katherine's boyfriend Joel (Michael Torsch).

A timeline provided in the program helpfully informs you that the real-life Leni died in 2003 at the age of 101, and the program also notes that the play is set in 2003. When Horst walks in -- a character who's been Raini's boyfriend for the past 35 years and who's played by the 44-year-old Dan Hopman -- you do the math and start to wonder whether Nazi propaganda is the only ethical lapse in Auntie's past.

Eventually, Raini's complete papers and master film prints come into her grand-niece's possession, occasioning an argument that it's impossible to imagine a lauded gallerist (Katherine) and a professor of photography (Joel) ever actually having -- literally sitting on the unspooled master print -- about one of the most significant, albeit terrifying, works in film history.

Not all the acting is as strong as that of Pistner, who plays Aunt Raini with a flinty resolve and complete physical commitment, but overall, director Kurt Schweickhardt's production gives this material more than a fair chance to work. Pistner's unexpected reappearance in the second act is deftly handled, with help from Anita Kelling's subtle sound design. Scenic designer Michael Hoover creates an impressive illusion of depth on the compact stage.

In the end, though, the overwritten drama spins out of control, and the threads that should have connected everything are lost. Thanks to a contrived subplot involving Katherine's father, her big conflict with Joel hinges on her supposed inability to trust rather than on Raini's work.

In one second-act scene, the play practically provides its own critique: the voices of two feuding men are silenced, fingers mutely jabbing in the background as Raini steps to the foreground and explains that in her day men called the shots, and when she was given an opportunity as a female artist, she took it. That feels like a moment of truth in a play with an overabundance of fiction.