Life in a Nazi’s Shoes
Hand-me-down heels pass from Joseph Goebbels’ wife to a victim of modern-day “patriots” in a controversial City Garage production
By Christina Campodonico
Santa Monica’s City Garage is known for producing edgy plays, but “Right Left with Heels” may be this season’s most controversial.
The Holocaust-themed play by Polish dramatist Sebastian Majewski — about a pair of human-skin shoes belonging to the wife of Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels — is at the center of a conflict between City Garage and the Polish consulate in Los Angeles.
The theater company says that the consulate promised support for their upcoming production of “Right Left with Heels.” That is until they read the play and withdrew their promise for fear of ruffling the feathers of Poland’s new rightwing government, says City Garage Producing Director Charles Duncombe.
“[We were told] the consulate couldn’t support the play because they did not approve of the content and were afraid of the new Polish government in Warsaw,” Duncombe says.
Polish consulate cultural attaché Ignacy Zarski denies the claim, citing budgetary restrictions.
“We cannot withdraw our financial contribution because we never promised any,” reads a statement to The Argonaut. “Our lack of financial support has nothing to do with the political situation in Poland. It is merely the result of a limited budget and our regulations.”
But this stumbling block hasn’t stopped Duncombe and director Frédérique Michel from going on with the show. They’ve set up a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to pay for the production, which deals with Polish history during and after the Holocaust from the perspective of Madga Goebbels’ pumps made from Auschwitz concentration camp victims.
The shoes, played by actresses Lindsay Plake and Alexa Yeames, go on to tell the fates of their successive owners — a female soldier in the Red Army, a doctor’s wife who denounces a Jewish woman, a secret police interrogator, and finally a cross-dresser who’s beaten up by far-right young Polish “patriots.”
“The content of the play is extremely important,” says Duncombe of City Garage’s decision to produce the play. “The play really deals with larger themes — not just the genocide in Poland or the Holocaust itself, but these continuing tendencies in mankind of racism and homophobia.
“In some ways, it’s unflattering, but it’s also a truthful portrait,” he continues. “Majewski has told some uncomfortable and complex truths about his own society.”
The personally resonating quality of Majewski’s text inspired Michel to direct the play after reading it in an anthology of 21st-century Polish drama.
“My grandfather was born in France and was Jewish and was denounced by someone with my uncle. They sent my grandfather and my uncle to Auschwitz and they died there in the camps,” Michel says. “[The play] was close to me and the story of my family.”
To write the play, Majewski drew on his personal knowledge of Polish history and his experiences growing up in Wroclaw, Poland — a city that underwent dramatic population changes when it was transferred from German to Polish control in the wake of World War II.
“Throughout my playwriting I like to deal with the history — its narratives and manipulations, the whole process of forgetting and remembering,” Majewski wrote in an email to The Argonaut. “The story of Magda Goebbels’ shoes is also the record of my own memory of the world’s history. … I made use of my knowledge of Nazism topics, World War II, some Polish history regarding the city of Wroclaw. … Living there, I observed how history is being politicized, how the narratives are changing — first the communistic one, then the neoliberal, and finally the rightwing narration.”
A private-sponsorship has made it possible for Majewski to visit Los Angeles during the play’s opening weekend on July 8, 9 and 10. After each of these shows he will discuss the play during dual-language Q&A sessions moderated by Polish scholar and journalist Eva Sobolevsky.
Majewski is interested to see how his play will find its footing with Los Angeles audiences, especially since readings of the play abroad have not sparked the same level of controversy.
“It’s the first time my play is going to be staged outside Poland and outside Europe. I must admit that I am very curious how American audiences will face the play, which is so strongly bonded with Polish history and realities,” wrote Majewski.
Ultimately, he wants viewers to decide whether his work is tangoing with trouble or bravely out of step.
“There is no thesis in any of my plays. So ‘Right Left with Heels’ does not contain any arbitrary thesis. By all means, I practice critical art, but my critique is aimed at public expectations, their routines and passion [for] typecasting.”
“Right Left with Heels” plays at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 14 at City Garage, Bergamot Station T1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Tickets are $20 to $25, or pay-what-you-can at the door on Sundays. A fundraising reception catered by Santa Monica-based Polish restaurant Solidarity ($50, including priority seating) happens after the July 8 premiere. Call (310) 453-9939 or visit citygarage.org.