Lucie Pohl (Photo: Mindy Tucker)
By Samuel L. Leiter
I admit I laughed uncomfortably when asking the box office clerk at the Cherry Lane for my tickets to Hi, Hitler, a title inspired by one of Lucie Pohl’s remembrances of her childhood in postwar Germany, where she misunderstood her parents’ constant reference to the similar-sounding Nazi salutation. First seen at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014, and later performed in Los Angeles, Baltimore, London, and on the Continent, it won an award for its brief 2015 showing at New York’s IRT Theatre.
Pohl, the trim, dark-haired, versatile, mid-thirtyish star of this 70-minute autobiographical solo piece, grew up in a Jewish theatrical family; her relatives, one gleans from the fast-paced narrative, are still significant figures in the German theater. She’s also related through her mother, Rumanian singer-actress Sanda Weigl, to Helene Weigel, wife of Bertolt Brecht. (Sanda’s dramatic career as a teen rock star-cum political agitator, not to mention her later international career, is ignored here but sounds like the makings of another show.)
While many might wish to know more about Pohl’s theatrical family, especially her playwright-actor father, Klaus Pohl, her generally intriguing narrative is mainly concerned with the experiences of an eight-year-old German child emigrating from East Berlin to New York with her parents, living in a Greene Street loft, and, as she grows up, encountering the difficulties of fitting into an alien environment.
Dressed in tight, black jeans and a form-fitting black polo with a ThunderCats logo, Pohl races through her life story on Christopher Thompson’s packing crate-filled set, one box with David Hasselhoff’s face pasted on it. Her performance aptly directed by Kenneth Ferrone, heightened by Andrew F. Griffin’s precise lighting, and punctuated by sound designer Matt Otto’s musical choices, Pohl switches in dizzyingly rapid succession from one characterization to another, changing faces, voices, accents, and gestures for over 30 distinctly drawn people.
As her father, for instance, she twists her body and holds up an arm in a grand theatrical manner, rolling her “R”s, and laughing dramatically to suggest his hamminess. For a sexy guy trying to seduce her, she lowers her voice and eyelids as she vainly keeps smoothing her hair.
Pohl’s linguistic background allows her not only to do a wide range of American and German types, not to mention a Chinese landlord but to also engage with a fellow immigrant girl in a rap routine mingling American street slang with German expressions. Needing something by which to identify herself, she coins the term Germanican.
Pohl recalls a range of personal, familial and professional experiences ranging from her family’s political arguments and theatrical relatives, her excitement at seeing a David Hasselhoff concert; her moving back to Germany to attend acting school, her European lover, her visa problems after returning to New York, and more. For her conclusion, Pohl’s tone softens, and her pace slows as she offers affecting words of wisdom spoken by her grandmother.
Immigrant stories, of course, are currently everywhere on New York stages, each concocted from its own national recipe to provide tasty pictures of how individuals navigate the shoals of culture shock. Much of this is definitely amusing but, with a few exceptions, it’s more smile than laugh inducing. Those smiles are more likely to be ignited by how Pohl expresses herself than by what she expresses, like the familiarly silly acting classes she took, just as inane in the Big Apple as Berlin.
Which is to say, I loved Lucie and liked Hi, Hitler.
Lucie Pohl: Hi, Hitler
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC
Through July 30
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).