HITLER’S TASTERS: Adolescents Under the Spell of Propaganda, Then & Now

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HITLER’S TASTERS is a production that should not be missed. Aside from the talented young cast serving up a spot-on performance in an award-winning and timely play at Rogue Machine, writer Michelle Kholos Brooks and like-minded director Sarah Norris have much to offer in this 85-minute piece of LOL entertainment.

Hitler’s Tasters is a re-imaging of true events that took place in Nazi Germany near the end of WWII. It tells a heartbreaking story, while mixing our past with the present, tragedy with hilarity, but it offers enough poignancy to remind audiences that, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

We caught up with writer Michelle Kholos Brooks to find out more about the wild journey that this show has been on since its first Los Angeles premiere in March of 2020, when it was shut down due to COVID after only two performances.

Ali Axelrad, Paige Simunovich and Olivia Gill in “Hitler’s Tasters” – Photo by Jeff Lorch

How did the seed for this project get planted for you? What struck you most deeply about the story?

The story of Margot Wölk came to my attention back in 2013. She was a German woman who, at 95 years old came forward to tell her story about being one of Adolf Hitler’s food tasters. Just when I thought I had heard every horrible, twisted thing about Hitler I discovered that he used young, German women to taste his food for poison. These women were meant to bear the children that would be the future of the Reich—the perfect German descendants. It brought into focus the idea that no one, not even the most privileged is safe under the gaze of a tyrant. 

I first connected to the story through the girls. Since time immemorial young women have been considered to be dispensable. They’re lifted up, given status, and then torn down when they are no longer useful. On a lighter note, the idea of putting young women in a single room, under pressure, with food, with the potential to die at every meal, with no one to turn against but each other—could there be a situation more ripe for humor—albeit dark humor? Teen girls can be simultaneously magnificent and terrifying—giggling and braiding each other’s hair one moment, devastating another girl with a single look the next. I couldn’t imagine who wouldn’t want to tell this story.

Caitlin Zambito, Olivia Gill and Paige Simunovich – Photo by Jeff Lorch

Had the play changed by the time it re-opened after COVID, and how is the Rogue Machine production different?

The play hasn’t changed much since COVID shut us down in 2020. However, some themes are, incredibly, even more relevant now; the divisiveness of our society, the blaming of “the other” for our troubles, the terrifying spread of misinformation, and the relentless attack on women and their ability to make their own choices. 

The production is very similar to what we tried to open in LA. It is still the design of Sarah Norris, our director who created this production for New Light Theater Project—the company that launched H*tler’s Tasters in New York. But the Rogue Machine production takes on a particular tenor on the Henry Murray stage. The immersive space creates an environment where the audience feels like another character in the play. We are so close to the actors that we can almost breathe with them in their fight to stay alive. When they do something funny—and this cast is very funny—there is an incredible lift in the space. The relief of the audience is palpable. And I’ve seen more than one audience member shimmy in their chairs when the music starts playing. The actors are so delightful to watch, so infectious, that it’s very tempting to get up and dance along with them!

Paige Simunovich, Caitlin Zambito and Olivia Gill – Photo by Jeff Lorch

What kind of charged feedback do you get from audiences regarding the play, the story, or even the title?

There have been a couple of reviewers along the way who refused to see the play based on the title. One reviewer said, ‘I would never see a show with that name. I hate that name.” To which I wanted to say, “Girl, I feel you. I’m a Jew, I don’t much like it either.” But not saying the H-word doesn’t make him go away. And now, more than ever, I believe it’s important to remember the horrors he caused. There is a stunning amount of Holocaust denial right now. And, for young people, World War II is very far in the rearview. 

In the beginning, when the play was in the reading stage and had not yet been produced, there were a few people who didn’t like the anachronisms in the play. They liked their Hitler stories rooted in the realm of reality. But my argument has always been that I didn’t want the girls in this play to feel like sepia-toned people in history. The anachronistic nature makes it feel very present. The girls in this play could easily be our daughters, nieces, friends, and schoolmates. I’ve had a number of young people tell me that the anachronisms helped them understand that the girls were just like them. That’s been my most gratifying feedback.

Olivia Gill, Caitlin Zambito, Paige Simunovich – Photo by Jeff Lorch

Are there elements of the current Israeli and Palestinian protests that tie into the log line of the play “Times Change – Tyrants & Teenagers Don’t?”

This play was written and published before October 7th, so there was no deliberate association with the current unrest. However, the play illustrates what happens when we reduce world events into personal grudges against our friends, neighbors, and community. Complex issues become reductive slogans that make hate easier to understand than nuance. The girls in H*tler’s Tasters are the girls whose families went along with the tide—they didn’t question or push back against the hate that was being fed to them. The result is chilling. I wish I didn’t see parallels.

What’s next for you?

Thank you for asking! I have a few exciting things coming up this year. My play WAR WORDS will be showcased at the Library of Congress in the fall as part of their Veteran’s Storytelling Initiative. And my newest play, ROOM 1214 will open off-Broadway in November. ROOM 1214 is based on interviews I did with a teacher whose classroom was shot into at Marjorie Stoneham Douglas High School in 2018. It was a Holocaust history class and the students were giving reports on hate crimes when a disturbed young man shot into the classroom, killing two students and injuring more. It’s tough material, but I do believe that the play offers hope, and most importantly, inspiration to take action. More you can read more about these and my other plays at www.MichelleKholosBrooks.com

“Hitler’s Tasters” runs at 8pm Fridays and Mondays; 5pm Saturdays; 7pm Sundays through June 3, 2024 (no performances on May 13). Rogue Machine, in the Matrix Theatre (upstairs on the Henry Murray Stage), 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90046. Tickets are $45 (Students $25/Seniors $35); Show4Less: May 17 & 24 ($20+)at https://www.roguemachinetheatre.org/ or for more information 855-585-5185. Run time is approximately 85 minutes (no intermission)

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