Martha Brigham, left, and Stacy Ross are excellent as younger and older versions of the title character in Aurora Theatre Co.’s “Leni.” (Courtesy David Allen)

Martha Brigham, left, and Stacy Ross are excellent as younger and older versions of the title character in Aurora Theatre Co.’s “Leni.” (Courtesy David Allen)

‘Leni’ digs into psyche of famed Nazi-era filmmaker

Many know Leni Riefenstahl for her 1934 Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.”

But who was the woman behind the far-reaching masterpiece?

“Leni,” a riveting multi-media drama by Sarah Greenman in its Bay Area premiere at Aurora Theatre Co., addresses the question, taking a philosophical and personal look at the artist whose famous documentary showing a Nazi rally in Nuremberg (and its sinister implications) continues to reverberate today.

She’s portrayed to perfection by two actresses at two stages in her life.

Stacey Ross bursts from the dark onto the scene (in the theater’s intimate upstairs lair) as the older, elegant, assured Helene, who confronts the audience: “You’re surprised that I’m still here? Death has turned out to be an extraordinary boost for my career.”

After reading the beginning of a New York Times obituary that calls her a cinematic genius and a propagandist for Hitler, the impeccable director queries again: “What do you want to know? The truth, I suppose.”

Lights then come up on the younger Leni, addressing Hitler (who’s not seen) asking him for more money to complete her movie “Olympia,” her glorious account of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Martha Brigham portrays her with snap, verve and the confidence of a groundbreaking artist in demand, and one who knows how to use her feminine wiles.

The action continues to flow back and forth between time and actors, as the mature Helene repeatedly defends her actions, insisting she’s devoted solely to art, never has had political affiliations, and is guilty only of perfectionism.

Yet both begin to waiver as the realities of history – Germans’ destruction of Jews’ property and lives on Kristallnacht, the arrival of sickly inmates from a labor camp as extras on one of her films – begin to set in, and questions of responsibility arise.

The women end up in a duel with each other, and their consciences, directed with fluidity and increasing urgency by Jon Tracy.

Accompanied with commentary from Greenman’s ingenious, historically-based script, clips from Riefenstahl’s movies effectively round out the production.

A still-lauded scene of Olympic divers flying in “Olympia” — with the proud director revealing with glee how she made it — is particularly amazing.

REVIEW

Leni
Where: Aurora Theatre Co., 2081 Addison St.., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes May 7
Tickets: $40 to $55
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org Aurora TheatreJon TracyLeniLeni RiefenstahlMartha BrighamSarah GreenmanStacy RossTheater

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