Michelle Kholos Brooks’ new play “Hitler’s Tasters,” which the Centenary Stage Company is currently presenting at the Sitnik Theatre in Hackettstown, is built upon a footnote to history: During World War II, a crew of 15 women tasted Adolf Hitler’s food, an hour before he had a meal, in order to ensure that it hadn’t been poisoned. If none of them became sick during that hour, he would go ahead and eat.
“Hitler’s Tasters” is not, though, an attempt to portray, realistically, what life must have been like for these women. Instead, Brooks imagines modern teens — boy-crazy, pop culture-obsessed, cellphone-owning and selfie-taking teens – transported, back in time, to Hitler’s headquarters. The soundtrack includes modern power-pop such as No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” and Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.”
It’s a daring move, and it works. “Hitler’s Tasters” is an entertaining and provocative play.
Brooks shrinks the crew from 15 to three, confined to a small room, where they solemnly, almost ritualistically eat their meals (knowing it could be the last) and casually chat after each post-meal hour has passed without incident. They wonder if Frank Sinatra or Hitler would make a better lover, and crack that if one of them got poisoned, at least it would break up the monotony.
“I could meet someone here,” says one, dreamily, meaning she could find a cute guard to date.
Heartbreakingly, they seem to accept, unquestioningly, that Hitler is godlike, America is a land of decadence, and Jews are evil.
At times, there is a “Lord of the Flies”-like aspect to the action. Sitting around a minimal set, the girls bond, but one of them also backstabs. Or, at least, she probably does; Brooks hints that something happened without absolutely confirming it. These girls know they are in a dire situation — though they also insist that it is an “honor” to have been chosen for this task — and do their best to maximize their chances for survival.
With our current presidential administration showing some fascistic traits, and fascism rising in some other countries throughout the world, the subject matter of “Hitler’s Tasters” has a strong topical resonance, and Brooks underscores this with jokes such as one of the girls saying that Hitler is trying to “Make Germany great again.”
Brooks leaves some of her characters’ intentions — as well as the play’s ending — ambiguous. But her political motivation seems clearer. A hate-filled society, with warped leaders, can make horrific behavior seem normal. And without vigilance, this kind of ugliness can strike anytime, anywhere.
“Hitler’s Tasters” will be at the Sitnik Theatre in Hackettstown through April 22; visit centenarystageco.org.