By Holli Harms

L-R: MaryKathryn Kopp, Hannah Mae Sturges, Hallie Griffin Photo credit: Hunter Canning

What does it mean to live with death? Every day? Three times a day? Your own death? Your own potential death? And you are only a girl. A teenager. A ridiculously hopeful playful teenager.

That is the story behind Michelle Kholos Brooks compelling new play, HITLER’S TASTERS, being performed at the IRT theatre in the West Village. The play is based on the true story of the women who were forced by the Nazis to not just taste, but eat an entire plate of the food that was to be consumed by Hitler himself. The girls were expected to digest a plate of meatless bland vegetables and rice and pasta and wait an hour. It was presumed it would take only one hour for the poison to work on the body and for them to be overcome by it. If they did not die in that hour from the food, then Hitler was safe to eat. When you are a dictator the mere nature of the beast mandates paranoia. Someone, somewhere definitely is plotting your demise.

The play is set in a bunker, close-knit gray walls with a table and three chairs for the tasters. The time is blurred. The girls are modern in speech though dressed in 1940’s attire. They have cell phones and pose for selfies, create their own YouTube-like dance sessions and sing to one of the best soundtracks compiled for a play I have every heard, and they worry about boys and popularity, and boys and sex, and friends and patriotism, and looking Jewish, and befriending Jews and gypsies, and if they will die at their next meal, or the next, or the next. The smashing together of the eras is absolutely brilliant in that it makes these girls the every girl. They are OUR girls, our daughters and sisters who are trapped in that bunker by the frenzied nationalism of a country run by a monster. They quote the adults who pour down their mouths the patriotic words about dying for Hitler being the most important way to serve your country, Germany will be great again, they are the pure race, they are important to the war.  The girls talk about Hitler, not as if he were a man or leader, but a rock star, a god. And they talk about movie stars and meeting them and who would you want to date and have sex with. They talk like teenagers. Girls. Overshadowing it all is the reality of the food, that arrives to their windowless airless world three times a day.

The ritual of that arrival, the eating, the hour of waiting, which when you are waiting for one hour of time for your possible death that hour is forever, are played out over and over. And once that foreboding threshold has been crossed, back to girl talk and playing truth or dare and singing and dancing. The intermingling of technology of today and the atrocities of the Third Reich, points to how little has really changed about us as people. How power and paranoia corrupt individuals and governments, and turn children into our shields against weapons that kill. Let them take the bullet, the knife, the poison. It makes you ask, “Who is the enemy?” The girls are told that anyone who is not like them, not pure bloods, is the enemy. But how can you tell who that is and who that is not?

Sarah Norris’ direction is music on stage. She moves her cast in and out of the joys of being a teenager and the horrors of possible death with the wand of a conductor. The cast is marvelous.

The third floor theatre is a tight fit. Intimate indeed. My one quibble was the lighting in parts of the play when the girls are not in the ritual of the eating, when they are hanging out and being girls and here the lights are fluorescent tubes meant to give the space a stark, harsh, hospital feel and they do, but those lights also light up most of the audience. Which because of our continuous exposure left us all sitting back, away from the production – watching, but detached. We never fall into the girls’ stories and their horror. We are just too exposed, too self conscious and maybe that is the point.

Written by Michelle Kholos Brooks and directed by Sarah Norris

With: Hallie Griffin,MaryKathryn Kopp, Kaitlin Paige Longoria, and Hannah Mae Sturges.

Directed by Sarah Norris, Choreography by Ashlee Wasmund
Scenic Design by An-lin Dauber, Costume Design by Ashleigh Poteat, Lighting Design by Christina Tang, Sound Design by Carsen Joenk, Fight Choreography by Frances Ramos, Technical Direction by ToniAnne DiFilippo, Production Stage Manager Lindsey Hurley, Production Assistant & Understudy Sarah Finn, Production Assistant & Understudy Lea Parker

Produced by New Light Theater Project at the IRT Theater

Friday, October 5 – Saturday, October 27

Performances are at IRT Theater (154 Christopher Street, between Greenwich & Washington Streets). Tickets are $25. To purchase tickets go HERE

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission