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Theatre Review by James Wilson - October 20, 2019

Renita Lewis and Lindsay Ryan
Photo by Hayley Procacci

The 1936 Olympics are generally known for the victorious feats of Jesse Owens, whose four gold medals were a rebuke to Hitler's declarations concerning the supposed supremacy of the Aryan race. However, as evident by Henry Naylor's Games, which is currently running at the SoHo Playhouse, the Owens triumph wasn't the only political drama associated with the games in Berlin. Two Jewish women athletes, fencing champion Helene Mayer and high-jump record holder Gretel Bergmann, battled valiantly to secure places on the German team despite the Nazis' concerted efforts to bar Jewish competitors.

The two young athletes in Games wrestle with questions about identity, nationalism, and political representation in sports. At 17 years old, Mayer (Lindsay Ryan) won the gold medal for fencing in the 1928 Olympics and immediately became the darling of the German volk. Families placed statuettes of her on their mantels, and she was referred to as "Little Hay." She had hoped to maintain her title in the 1932 Olympics, but with the recent death of her father and after learning just two hours before her match that her boyfriend was killed in a military shipping accident, she placed fifth. The 1936 Olympics offered a final and desperate shot at cultural redemption.

In the play, Mayer attempts to disassociate herself from the extremist politics even as the fascist government and anti-Semitic laws are firmly established. The former national treasure is relegated to an unwelcome foreigner. She still believes that she can transcend prejudice. As she explains, "My father is Jewish, my mother's Aryan. I? I am a fencer." Realizing she is being used as a political pawn by the Nazi government worried about an American boycott, she nonetheless accepts a place on the German team. She asserts, "The Games must go on."

Bergmann (Renita Lewis) had a similar ascent. As a teenager in Laupheim, Germany, she was a fierce competitor, besting even her male counterparts in any number of track and field sports. According to the play, Mayer met the young athlete and suggested she focus on the one in which she could be victorious. Bergmann chose high jumping, saying, "I wanted to take the species higher than it's ever been. To reach the stars." She went on to break high-jump records in Europe, but the Germans placed overwhelming obstacles (some as a result of the Nuremberg Laws, others from the whims of the German Olympics administrators) in front of her.

Directed by Darren Lee Cole, the play, like the historical events swirling around the 1936 Olympics, moves swiftly. The characters primarily narrate their stories, often poetically, and they intermittently debate with each other the entanglement of sports and politics as well as the responsibilities of the individual to a unified team effort. Embodying the signature moves of their respective sports, Ryan and Lewis are in constant motion. Choreographically, they demonstrate the physical and emotional exhaustion the women endured. Both performers are excellent.

With effectively minimal design by Carter Ford, the production zeroes in on the individuals caught in the social and political maelstrom of the 1930s. Although the play addresses philosophical and ethical issues covered in other dramas about the Holocaust, Naylor and company bring to light little-known figures from the era. (In a fascinating side note, one of the members of the 1936 German team, and who came in fourth place in the women's high-jump competition, was Dora Ratjen. She was later revealed to be intersex, but after an arrest for presumably being a woman-dressed-as-a-man, Ratjen was legally declared male in 1938. He lived the rest of his life as Heinrich Ratjen.)

Since the women will be unfamiliar to most audience members, their athletic fates in the Games will not come as much of a surprise. The play ends with a coda ten years after the 1936 Olympics in which the women meet one more time. As Jewish women, they are extremely fortunate to have survived the Holocaust, but their own potentially glorious legacies have been lost in history. In real life, Bergmann (who became Margaret Lambert) died in 2017 at age 103. Mayer, who became a US champion fencer, changed her first name from Helene to the more American sounding Helena. She returned to Germany in 1952 and died of breast cancer a year later. She was just 42 years old.

Through November 24
SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street between 6th Avenue and Varick
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: