When dramatic theater finds a way to move beyond the boundaries of sets and costumes into the very heart of its audience, the experience lingers and continues to whisper, long after the curtain falls. That is the experience that The Red Dress is currently delivering to audiences at The New Phoenix Theatre on the Park.
This play is written by Tania Wisbar and tells the story of her parent’s life in post-World War I Germany. Her mother was the celebrated German film star, Alexandra Schiele. Her father was Franz Weitrek a valued documentary film director for Joseph Goebles and Adolph Hitler.
The play reflects the brutality of Hitler’s regime as it insidiously invades and manipulates the Schiele/Weitrek marriage to the point that the couple is forced to choose between divorcing and abandoning each other, or aborting their unborn child and sterilizing Alexandra. Clearly theirs was not a world of lightly-made decisions.
The challenge in presenting a play of such dark content is ensuring the audience can endure. It is a credit to Wisbar’s words, Buffalo native Frank Rossi’s direction, and Chris Cavanaugh’s set design, that The Red Dress is compelling more than unmanageably disturbing. It is also the level of excellence the entire cast brings to the stage that further raises this production.
Award-winning WNY actress Pamela Rose Mangus shines onstage and off as the voice of a German mother desperate to resurrect her dead son through a sketch she dreams of framing and hanging in her home.
Camilla Maxwell’s sensitive performance as a Jewish widow weaves frightening reminders through the first act of Hitler’s heinous reign of ethnic cleansing.
Jeremy Kreuzer brings a perfect blend of star struck innocence and distorted perversion as a climbing-the-ranks officer in Hitler’s SS.
Yet it’s the performances of the two lead actors that deeply implant the message of The Red Dress into the audience’s heart.
Kenmore native, Liz McKendry, in the starring role of Alexandra, expertly uses her physical and vocal skills in transitioning from a self-absorbed movie star in the first act to a mentally tortured woman by the play’s end.
Hamburg native, Josh Nuncio places audiences directly into a World War I battlefield as he endures a post-traumatic stress nightmare with an intense sensitivity that defines the entire play.
Together these two actors transcend the stage in allowing the audience to feel as if they are invasively eavesdropping on the private lives of this couple, as they struggle to sustain their love amid the political, professional and social pressures of Hitler’s Germany.
On opening night, as the cast took their final bows, it was clear they were impacted by the performances they had just delivered, each with a passion that undoubtedly will continue to linger and whisper to all who share in Tania Wisbar’s Red Dress journey.
The Red Dress runs Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. through June 23rd at The New Phoenix Theatre on The Park, 95 Johnson Park. There will be an author talk back following the Saturday, June 2nd performance, Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com.
Lead image: Cast receive standing ovation from sold out audience at New Phoenix theatre