Adolf Hitler was afraid of being poisoned, but he didn’t use prisoners to taste his food. Instead he made it an honor, of sorts, for select teenage German girls.
This historical tidbit inspired Michelle Kholos Brooks to write “Hitler’s Tasters,” a risky drama that asks audiences to empathize with Nazi protagonists. The production by the New Light Theater Project earned acclaim in New York and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and despite coronavirus-related theater closures in Los Angeles County, it is proceeding with its run through March 30 at the Electric Lodge in Venice. (A spokeswoman for the production said the venue has instituted extra cleaning precautions before and after shows and is capping the audience at 50 people to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for social distancing.)
“I’m so excited that it’s finally in my backyard,” said Brooks, a public radio journalist turned playwright who lives in Venice with son Henry and husband Max, who wrote the novel “World War Z.” Her father-in-law is Mel Brooks, who knows a little something about pushing boundaries with Hitler (and, well, everything else).
The play, which has an all-female artistic team led by director Sarah Norris, takes place entirely in the room where the girls await their food, hoping to serve the cause and to please their leader — and to survive. Questioning why they are there can be as dangerous as any potential poison. Mostly, however, the girls blindly and loyally submit to their leader’s whims, never really thinking about how his immoral policies are also terrible for them.
But Brooks understands that girls will also be girls, forming friendships, bickering, gossiping and dreaming. Breaking traditional narrative rules, Brooks gives the girls cellphones. They take selfies and dance to Madonna, an anachronistic twist that drives home the relevance to modern America. The playwright spoke to The Times about the inspiration and response to the work.
What drew you to the story?
I’m very concerned about girls and the way they get treated, and all the issues that were speaking to me as a woman have been mirrored in our country. But initially, I just couldn’t believe he used young German women. I remember thinking, “Isn’t adolescence hard enough?”
The way young women relate to each other is complicated; it’s not a time I’d like to go back to in my history. There was an inherent darkness in the story, shoving girls together in one room and seeing what they do to each other with the stakes being so high.
How much research did you do, and how difficult was it to find the tone, balancing the dark humor with the tension?
The tone emerged organically. When I had the idea, my husband got super excited, saying, “We get to watch World War II movies.” He bought me all these books, “Hitler’s Last Days” and “He Was My Chief” and books of protocol for how to behave on Hitler’s birthday.
I decided I was going to read everything, but then I was part of a 48-hour playwriting challenge. You could only go forward, you could never rewrite. I said, “I’m not going to write this play for it,” but I did. It was just living inside me in a profound way. That was the first draft. Then I found opportunities when I went back to hone it. There’s so much humor that comes out of these tense awful situations, sometimes there’s no choice.
What made you give the girls cellphones and have them dance to pop music?
The idea hit me out of the blue. It felt relevant and important.
I had watched young women spend an hour taking selfies and I was fascinated. Looking at yourself all the time seems like it can’t lead to anything good. At some point it hit me that these would have been the same girls; they’re still girls, they still preen and dance and braid each other’s hair and fight and compete. At the time if they had cellphones I’m sure they’d be taking selfies.
When it hit me, it scared me because I knew then that I was telling a story that felt very present and I knew some people would be very uncomfortable with it and would bristle at it.
Did you talk to Mel about the play before you wrote it?
I didn’t have a conversation with him about it beforehand, but he has really encouraged me to be brave: Go for what you know you want to say. If you’re going to walk up to the bell, ring it.
And just by knowing him for so long and watching how hard he still works, he worked on me by example and osmosis. If I think something’s funny, even if it’s inappropriate, go for it. He has done pretty well with that.
Has there been pushback?
A journalist was sent a press release and she said, “Why would anybody use the name Hitler in a play? I hate him and I would never write a review about this play.”
I thought, “I hate him too. I hear you, girlfriend.” [Laughs.] But maybe it’s worth digging a little deeper. To have that kind of attitude — pretending bad things don’t exist — seems like a dangerous game to me.
A theater in Connecticut canceled the play. They were going to bring in middle school groups, and they would talk about World War II. It was around the midterm elections and it was a wealthy community, and they wrote to the producer and said, “We’ve changed our mind, this is too political. We’re a red area in a blue state, and we think this might upset some patrons.”
Of course, there are parallels drawn to what is happening now, but Trump’s name is never invoked. In the end it’s about Hitler. And also it’s theater. If you’re going to make those comparisons between Trump and Hitler and then cancel the play, that’s worrisome. Theater is supposed to be a place for conversation, not just a place where you come out humming a happy song.
When: 8 p.m. Saturdays and Mondays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through March 30; additional performance 8 p.m. March 27
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes