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Winifred: Unsettling Tale of Nazi Love Has World Premiere in Houston

The setup:

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In its world premiere from Theater LaB Houston, written and directed by Alva Hascall in collaboration with UnCommonWill Collective, 


is very much new-wave German expressionist theater. With its expansive use of projections, Brechtian fourth-wall breaking (Winifred talks to the stage manager, the sound designer and the audience throughout), and its Weimar-era


inspiration, this dissection of the life of one of music's most fascinating subsidiary characters has all the ingredients in place for a buttery, high-calorie strudel. However, the pastry, for all its tasty pedigree, remains half-baked.

The execution:

Of all the families in Nazi Germany, the Richard Wagner clan held the greatest allure for Adolph Hitler. He revered the great titan's music (strangely, the ecstatic and ethereal Lohengrin and, not so strangely, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, that stolid paean to German art and culture) and would visit the Wagner home in Bayreuth as often as he could, starting in 1923 before his infamous failed coup, the Beer Hall Putsch. Afterward, sitting in prison in Landsberg, Bavaria, the future dictator had time to write his squalid, disgusting autobiography/manifesto Mein Kampf (My Struggle), apparently written on note paper supplied by none other than the wife of Wagner's son Siegfried, Winifred Wagner. If Hitler was smitten with the English wife of the great man's son, Winifred was just as taken with this fiery man with the piercing emerald-blue eyes. At a later date, the family was abuzz that the Führer would certainly marry the widow (Siegfried died in 1930), but that never happened, nor apparently did any sexual encounter, even though “Wolf” would visit Winifred in the dead of night on lightning liaisons until WWII officially began and he was too busy in Berlin to visit the provinces. That distance, though, never stopped the family from visiting him in the capital. But in the '20s and '30s, a young Hitler bounced Siegfried's children on his knee at Wahnfried, the family villa in Bayreuth, and everybody affectionately called him Uncle Wolf. It's enough to make one shiver. It is a fascinating and terrible history, made more resonant by the association with Wagner's sublime music. Winifred's husband, Siegfried, was the eponymous dedicatee of “The Siegfried Idyll” (1870), Wagner's luscious chamber piece written as a birthday gift to wife Cosima (the daughter of Liszt) after the birth of their son.

When Siegfried died, his will stipulated that his heir, and hence head of the renowned Bayreuth Festival, would be his wife Winifred. For two decades, during the most treacherous period in Europe, this indomitable woman ran the most prestigious music festival in the world. Her association with the leader of Nazi Germany didn't hurt. She was an unrepentant Nazi until the end in 1980, wistfully remembering Wolf and the good old days. If you've ever seen Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's intimate yet five-hour-long documentary The Confessions of Winifred Wagner (1975), you know the unwavering depth of her feelings. The old lady almost becomes excited when talking about the maniacal butcher. Although she went through denazification after the war, she received a rather light sentence after two trials, even though she had to relinquish her festival duties, which, of course, passed uneasily into the hands of her two sons, Wieland and Wolfgang. (It remains a family-run business, filled with infighting, squabbles and enough treachery for a good many verismo operas.)

The history of this period is rich, interwoven and complex. Playwright Hascall condenses, simplifies and muddles. It's not only that Tek Wilson, as Winifred, wears an unconvincing Louise Brooks white bob, a hair style Winifred never sported and wouldn't have (she preferred the Gibson girl upsweep); but the play's historical time line, while somewhat chronological, is sanded down until it's unrecognizable. If you don't have a passing interest in the march of time, forget it. Ring heads, those impassioned admirers of Wagner's epic four-opera spectacle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, will admire the Wagner-influenced soundtrack, but will find themselves confounded by the sketchiness and the easy laughs at his expense. Wolfgang is never mentioned, nor are his two sisters, Friedelind and Verena, any of whom could be the subject of a sequel (or could at least make an appearance in this piece). Friedelind finally saw the light and eventually emigrated to America, where she wrote a scathing indictment of the Wagner family's ties to Hitler; while youngest Verena happily stayed put and married an SS officer.

Winifred is neither fish nor fowl, and most definitely needs a rewrite for future success. The play needs judicious tightening. That extraneous last segment, depicting a Bayreuth set designer whose guilt at not stopping the inherent horrors of the regime leads to his suicide, comes out of left field and neither enlightens Winifred's predicament nor showcases her. It takes away too much of her precious stage time. We've come to see her, to hear her witnessing, her confessional.

Yet the play is fascinating all the same. How could it not be? Hitler and Wagner together again with this gorgon lady leading the celebration.

Winifred's given a conscience, or bête noire, with the character of the Handsome Young Man (Jonathan Teverbaugh). Most of the time he plays her son Wieland, but he also prances about as a debauched Marlene Dietrich surrogate in top hat, fishnet stockings and high heels (and another bad wig that makes him look like Harpo Marx), as some sort of kept man (not very likely knowing Winifred's history), as a prosecutor at Winifred's trials, or as narrator of the designer's sad tale. Teverbaugh's a lively foil to Wilson, lighting her cigarettes, pouring her drinks and pricking her pretensions.

Wilson's been with this project since its inception, so it's a bit unsettling to see such an improvised performance from her. Maybe that's what director/author Hascall wants: an evening spent with this cranky old lady whose motives are always suspect, spinning tales as if out of the air. But Winifred is nothing if not cagey and sly. She knows just what she's doing and how to play for that effect. She winks at us, flirts with us and even gives us chocolates at one point to seduce us. “I did nothing wrong,” she keeps insisting. “Who's a victim; who's not a victim?” is her mantra. "Tentative" is not in her lexicon.

The video projections are as startling and slap-in-your-face as if they're caricatures by George Grosz. But because they're so prominent and hideously eye-catching (those actual photographs of wartime injuries stop our breath), we lose focus with Winifred's commentary. Who can concentrate on anything said onstage when confronted by such potent visual horrors? [Editor's note: A five-minute video by Dave Merson Hess accompanied the retelling of the set designer's suicide in the third act and did not include wartime images.]

The verdict:

Maybe that's the problem with Winifred. There's so much to detail in her story, so much to confess, so much to witness, so much to forgive. It's so fragrantly unsettling, like those blasted flowers of evil in Wagner's Parsifal. Winifred was most certainly a hothouse specimen. She bloomed and survived, rare and uncategorized. Whether she should have is grist for the historians.

Winifred runs through May 22, presented by Theatre LaB Houston and UnCommonWill Collective at The MATCH, 3400 Main. For tickets, call 713-521-4533 or visit matchouston.org. $32 to $47.

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