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Camp Siegfried

Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 15, 2022

Johnny Berchtold and Lily McInerny
Photo by Emilio Madrid
The slogan, "Work sets you free," greeted new arrivals to many Nazi concentration camps. Although not explicitly stated, this is a guiding principle in Bess Wohl's Camp Siegfried, currently running at Second Stage Theater. Chopping wood, hauling planks, and building a deck are just some of the strenuous chores the play's two characters perform throughout the show's eighty-minute runtime. The title refers not to a concentration camp, but to an actual Long Island summer camp that catered to families and youth. Organized by the German-American Bund and operating from 1936 to 1941, the resort also provided a space for rejoicing in German jingoism and cultivating Nazi ideals.

The teenage protagonists, denoted simply as He (Johnny Berchtold) and She (Lily McInerny), meet at a camp celebration with a loud German oom-pah band playing in the background. She is a mousy 16-year-old wallflower, and He is a brash and confident 17-year-old. In their initial flirtatious awkwardness, they trade barbs, calling each other "dummy." At first glance, the couple could be a version of Rolf and Liesl from The Sound of Music transplanted to Yaphank, New York. Over the course of the summer, they continue to work together (including constructing that aforementioned deck), verbally spar, and soon sexual sparks ignite. When this sixteen-going-on-seventeen-year-old becomes something of a dominatrix, however, you can be assured we are no longer in Rodgers and Hammerstein's world.

The play is also a far cry from another standout pop-culture reference, the Catskills summer affair presented in Dirty Dancing. In addition to kindling their romantic passions, the rigorous chores and ardent social activities at Camp Siegfried provide the perfect means to set free the characters' German nationalist fervor. She begins politically timorous, insecure in her Germanness and her cultural leanings, but as the summer draws to a close, she is resolved to propagate the Aryan race and has fully embraced fascist philosophies. While He had harbored fantasies of settling out West, he gradually changes directions to go east and fight with the SS and brownshirts.

Wohl's play raises interesting questions about the ways in which ideologies take root and flourish, especially among youth. The verdant backdrop helps make the allusions to Nazi propaganda emerge even more insidiously. (Brett J. Banakis's impressive set consists of a rolling hill and greenery, and Tyler Micoleau's excellent lighting helpfully conveys several outdoor and indoor locales around the campgrounds. Brenda Abbandandolo's period-specific costumes and Christopher Darbassie's sound design further assist in evoking a particular historical and psychological milieu.)

The play is not, however, without its slow patches, and I didn't quite believe the huge character change and profound language fluency development in the young woman that occurs over mere weeks. I'm also not sure why the teens, who are drawn with such specificity, don't have names. Still, the play is productively provocative, and it breathes life into a fascinating archival footnote.

David Cromer's direction generates significant heat between the two performers, and Berchtold and McInerny are marvelously matched in negotiating the shifting desires and alternating power dynamics. These are intensely physical performances as well, so when the lovers talk about painful blisters, bruises, and missing toenails due to harsh labor conditions, it's easy to see why.

As I was leaving the theater, I heard one audience member remark to a companion that the play was "way better than that otherNazi teen show." I am fairly certain they were referring to This Beautiful Future, Rita Kalnejais's exquisite piece about a German occupier and a young French woman who fall in love during the height of World War II. Camp Siegfried–and here's where I think I disagree with my fellow spectator–does not have the audacity and sheer theatricality of the other work, but it still offers a potent and timely reminder that hatred and neo-fascism can flourish in our own backyard.

Camp Siegfried
Through December 4, 2022
Second Stage Theater
Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: