H*TLER'S TASTERS - Rogue Machine at The Matrix Theatre

Reviewed by Amanda Callas

H*tler's Tasters is an irreverent, playful, provocative satire about fascism at Rogue Machine on Melrose through June 3, 2024. It is springtime for Hitler's girls in a military bunker, who are assigned the dubious patriotic honor of tasting the Führer's vegetarian food before he eats it.  Every day, three times a day, they eat, and then wait and see if they will die.  The girls take selfies, gossip, dance, and reveal their inmost secrets. 

The dark comedy by Michelle Kholos Brooks is inspired loosely by real events and the life of a German woman named Margot Wölk.   In 2012, at 95 years old, Wölk shared her story with the world for the first time and talked about spending her youth tasting Hitler's food for poison, before being raped by the Russians who came after the fall of the Third Reich.

Award-winning Jewish playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks is the daughter in law of Mel Brooks, the legendary comic, writer, director, and filmmaker who created the black comedy The Producers in 1967.    H*tler's Tasters is, in many ways, like a sustained episode of The Producers' play within a play, Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden , transformed into a gossipy teen romp that mixes the contemporary with unbelievable historical fact.

If you put giggling, celebrity crushes, Nazi propaganda, duckface selfies, twerking, banter about cute SS officers, antisemitism, penis jokes, secret police informing, bullying and peer pressure, war time privations, and poisoning all into a narrative blender, you would get  H*tler's Tasters .

In between the brazen dark comedy and nonstop laughter from the audience, this Rogue Machine dark comedy quietly reflects on the incalculable damage inflicted on women and girls by war, thought policing, censorship, sexual violence, and hate.   There are many moments of current relevance.   Recently on the 405 I passed by a white van plastered with slogans and a ticker tape screaming about the world conspiracy run by Jewish people and demanding that all Israelis be removed from the United States.   It is painful to realize how contemporary the antisemitism explored in H*tler's Tasters is.

Appropriately enough, there are trigger warnings on the beautifully designed programs.   H*tler's Tasters is cheekily outrageous and gloriously irreverent.   The jaunty tone is set by a splendid Sam Cass in uniform commanding the audience upstairs from the theatre's lobby.

Rogue Machine stages Hi*tler's Tasters in the intimate, immersive attic theatre space, the Henry Murray Stage.   Painted in a military grey and furnished with the barest of overhead lights, this small space is transformed into a grim bunker cell, windowless, with the irregular slanted walls seeming to press in on us.   Palpable paranoia and claustrophobia arise just from the design, with superb transformational work from scenic and lighting designers Joe McClean and Dane Bowman.   I cannot imagine a more fitting venue for this play.

There are engaging, thoughtful, fearless performances throughout H*tler's Tasters , with well-tuned direction from Sarah Norris. Olivia Gill shines as the ultimate Jungmädelbund queen bee Hilda, with a sunny, sinister radiance, sugary voice, and pitch-perfect comedic timing.   Gill uncannily evokes the vanished mean girl of the teen series Pretty Little Liars , Sasha Pieterse. In fact, H*tler's Taster s all together has the effect of a fascist CW show, a Nazi fresh take on Gossip Girl.  

The play may suffer at times from lacking a precise shape, and can feel a bit meandering and circular, although no doubt some of that is intentional, since we are enduring the endless repetition of these girls' monotonous, terrifying days trapped in a bunker.    As happens in stand up and sketch comedy, H*tler's Tasters can have a bit of a scattershot quality, with lots of sparks flying in different directions.   There are many moments of absolute, unfiltered hilarity. Likewise, there is some profound drama, especially in Axelrad's performance.

Playing outcast Anna, Ali Axelrad is a powerful, quietly arresting actress.   Axelrad brings a sharp, poignant vulnerability and dreamy longing, and her monologue about experiencing sexual violence from a soldier and wondering if it is love visibly shattered the audience. Paige Simunovich is stunning in her precisely evoked girlishness, her quirky innocence and truthfulness. Simunovich makes Liesel into one of the most engaging, grounded, and lovable characters.  

With subtle insight, playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks writes these German WII girls, even the rather buoyantly evil Hilda, as sympathetic characters.   On the face of it, it seems unlikely for us as an audience to root for people working for a bloodthirsty dictator who murdered millions, engineered the Holocaust, demolished much of Europe, and engulfed most of the world into an all-consuming battle that could have destroyed it.   Yet Michelle Kholos Brooks' generous humanist lens reflects that everyone in extreme ideologies is a victim, even the "privileged" ones.   She also honors the girls' inherent innocence, exploring the ways that young people and children are particularly vulnerable in war and violence.  

Hi*tler's Tasters recalls the space that Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan titled Girl Land in her eponymous book - a frolicsome sanctuary, an enchanted, dreamy twilight between childhood and adulthood.  That Girl Land happens inside a military fascist bunker adds a freakish irony that infuses the production.

It is not for the timid or the easily offended, but this peppery, piquant satire is daring, entertaining, laugh-out-loud funny, and boldly thought-provoking.

Rogue Machine'sH*tler's Tasters runs through June 3, 2024 on the Henry Murray Stage at The Matrix Theatre located at 7657 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046.  H*tler's Tasters runs at 8pm Fridays, Mondays; 5pm Saturdays; 7pm Sundays through June 3, 2024 (no performances on May 13).  Tickets are $45 (Students $25 / Seniors $35); Show4Less: May 10 ($15+), May 17 & 24 ($20+). There is street parking.  Tickets:   https://www.roguemachinetheatre.org/or for more information (855)585-5185. 

Posted By DH Magazine on May 08, 2024 03:13 pm | Permalink