ORLANDO — From the start, it’s clear that Stella Goldschlag is smart, cultured, well educated, the kind of person who always comes off in public as being impressively elegant and charming.
But there’s also something about Stella that seems instantly off-putting. As she addresses the audience, she keeps returning to her mirror, making sure every strand of hair is in place, that there are no hints of pudge on her waist. She brags about watching what she eats and maintaining her figure, frets about having a stray piece of spinach between her teeth, and insists that she could easily pass for 40. On a dark day, she adds, she could even pass for 30.
Stella is a woman rather obsessed with how others perceive her — she wants to be seen as someone to be admired for her beauty, her classy ways, her appeal to men. And as Stella continues talking about her life, a few things become apparent. She is not from a wealthy family, and she has a certain degree of resentment toward those who are — particularly, she freely admits, those fellow Jews who were born into the kind of privilege she never had.
She even tends to resent those neighbors who just seem to act so … well, Jewish. You know, they make it so obvious to everyone in the city that they’re Jews, that it gets to be fairly nauseating, Stella points out. She’s not about shoving her faith in other people’s faces, particularly the Christians.
There will always be people in society who belong to one minority group or another, and resent it, because they wish they were more like the majority and could blend in more easily. They don’t want to be seen as being “different” in any way.
But Stella’s story, recounted in the play “Blonde Poison,” takes on a greater amount of significance because of her circumstances. She’s a young Jew living in Germany in the late 1930s, when the Nazi party has started its “Final Solution” to eradicate the Jews. Suddenly, being one of them isn’t just an annoyance for someone who craves full acceptance by the Christian majority. Now it’s a matter of survival.
Indeed, Stella comes close to being sent to a concentration camp several times. And if she seems to be interested solely in self-preservation, it’s likely true that hundreds of others were as well.
The difference, though, is that Stella makes a crucial decision. Given an opportunity to work for the Gestapo, she accepts. Her job is to tour the city’s cafes, and spot the Jews there … and report that information back to the authorities, who can then go round them up.
Because of her betrayal, scores of Jews died in the camps.
“Blonde Poison,” the play by Gail Louw, recounts the true story of the woman who got that nickname because of her horrific actions. It’s a solo performance, set in a small West German town in 1983, decades after the war, as Stella recounts her life.
And as portrayed so brilliantly by Carol Adams, we get a complex figure who can not only be quite charming and even empathetic at times, but who also sets out to explain — even justify — actions that seem impossible to put in a positive light.
Stella is never apologetic. She insists that she was actually not a social ladder climber, but a devoted daughter. Her parents were ready to leave Germany for safety, but the Gestapo held up their deportation. She acted, she insists, to save them. Isn’t that actually something noble?
In that sense, Carol Adams-the-actress beautifully portrays Stella Goldschlag-the-actress — giving one grand final performance to the world, to assure everyone that selling out fellow Jews to their deaths could be understood if people knew her, and her circumstances. So much of what Stella does and says seems calculated to put her in the best light.
But there is always that sense bubbling underneath her words of a deep-seated resentment that her fellow Jews really brought on their own deaths because their overtly Jewish behavior alienated so much of the polite Christian society that Stella wanted desperately to be a part of. If only they could have been a little less Jewy in public.
“Blonde Poison” is a powerfully complex play that offers no simple answers to such a dark chapter in history. In an interview with Freeline Media, Adams noted that some critics have called the play anti-Semitic, which she insists it is not. She’s right; while highly specific to the Holocaust, the themes lend themselves to other situations as well, where members of scores of different ethnic and minority groups, pushed into a catastrophic life and death situation, have an agonizing choice to make: stick with the tribe, or betray it if that seems like the only escape route. It’s a grim and despairing topic.
In his 2002 Holocaust film “The Pianist,” director Roman Polanski took a similar approach in recounting the true story of Polish pianist Władysław Szpilman, who lived in Warsaw during the Nazi invasion of Poland and ends up in the Jewish ghetto. Early on, he’s given a chance to join the Jewish police, which works for the Gestapo under the presumed notion that betrayal of fellow Jews will protect their lives. Szpilman refuses and sticks with his family and fellow Jews, even as their situation becomes increasingly grim. It’s no small irony, then, that as Szpilman and his family are about to be boarded onto trains to Auschwitz, Szpilman is saved by his friend in the Jewish police — who also stands by and watches passively as the rest of Szpilman’s family, and hundreds of others, are forced onto those trains and sent to their deaths.
“Blonde Poison” is a very powerful and moving piece. Stella’s actions have consequences for her — devastating ones, in fact. And by the end, you’re left to ask: was she, too, a victim …. or simply a monster?
The play moves from here to the 2016 San Francisco Fringe Festival, Sept. 9-24. It’s a remarkable work.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..