REVIEW: Camp Siegfried (Theatre Exile, Philadelphia, PA)
Even A Good Production Can’t Overcome A Confusing Script.
A history play can educate, pass judgment, seek for atonement, or merely just exist in relation to an event or time period, while taking audiences on a journey of understanding or context around the specified period in time. Camp Siegfried, the 2021 play by Bess Wohl, does shed some light on an often overlooked aspect of United States history, but doesn’t really comment on it in a fully effective way. Theatre Exile is producing the regional premiere in Philadelphia, and while it’s an engaging production, it never truly soars past the script problems.
A So-So Script
Camp Siegfried tells a fictionalized story of an actual place. Two teens are spending their summer at Camp Siegfried, a camp on Long Island where German Americans went to fully embrace their culture and heritage in the 1930s. However, this show takes place in 1938, when German culture was largely overrun the radical thinking of the Nazi party. The audience watches as these two teens are lured into the Nazi party, and experience the wild indoctrination that occurred to many young people during this time. Wohl’s dialogue is very quick and occasionally profound, but the show struggles in terms of what it’s trying to accomplish.
There is a really interesting conversation that is posited at the start of the show about how to separate a country's culture from a government movement that is carrying out atrocities, but the show doesn’t delve into it too deeply. The show instead focuses on the relationship and power dynamics of these two teens, but seems afraid to really pass judgment on Nazism as a whole. It just feels oddly ambivalent for a topic so controversial and important. It also brushes over extreme acts that were occurring at these summer camps, as it does when talking about how the young girls all wanted to get pregnant. While the show plays it for laughs, the undercurrent is that this is an attempt to convince these children to become pregnant in hopes of propelling the “German race”.
A Good Production
Camp Siegfried is a two person play, and both performers are firing on full cylinders throughout. Jenna Kuerzi as 'Her' and Adam Howard as 'Him' have wonderful chemistry and play off of each other nicely. Kuerzi in particular is given more of the emotional depth of the piece, and is able to navigate the nuances within her character remarkably well. She’s engaging to watch whenever she is on stage, and is able to make moments of no dialogue a highlight. Howard is able to capture the youthful exuberance of his character well, and is naturally charismatic. The journey that his character goes on feels slightly less developed than Kuerzi’s, but he handles it well. There were a few moments throughout the play where both actors used modern (or at least modern seeming) movements or vocal choices that could’ve been interpreted as an intentional choice to marry the story to current events. However, they felt a bit too out of place in the full setting of the play to land as successful as perhaps intended.
Deb Block’s direction and use of the space is commendable. She stages the actors in interesting and exciting ways that allow for clear sightlines and really terrific stage images. One moment in particular was just a perfect collaboration between director, actors and designers: the two characters are sitting on a lake, discussing the world and they encounter a swan. The way the lighting,sound and performances blend effortlessly into each other for this brief reminder of the innocence of youth was truly a striking moment that lasts long after the show has ended. The set (designed by Marie Laster), sound (designed by Christopher Colucci), and lighting (designed by Drew Billiau) all work harmoniously together in a way that is both simplistic and effective. The team as a whole did a fantastic job of transforming the space at Theatre Exile, and it alleviates some of the script’s shortcomings.
Camp Siegfried shines a light on a relatively unknown section of our history, but it never delves deep enough into, or exudes a strong enough opinion about the horrible things that were occurring at these summer camps to really drive home a message. The production as a whole has several memorable moments of stagecraft and performance, and generally rises above the script. That being said, the show is understandably divisive and creates a larger conversation, something that Theatre Exile strives for with all of their productions. It just happens that the more interesting conversations aren’t necessarily present in the text.
Camp Siegfried is on stage at
Theatre Exile (1340 S. 13th St.)
from now until November 12th, 2023.
For tickets and more information, check out theatreexile.org