Set during World War II, the play “Aimée and Jaguar” chronicles the unlikely but true story of a passionate romantic relationship between two women in war-torn Berlin.
Originally a book by Erica Fischer, the story was turned into an acclaimed 1999 German language film directed by Max Fäberbök.
The stage version, adapted by playwright Lillian Groag, is more faithful to the source material. UWM Labworks, a series of student productions that are the culmination of semester-long performance classes, presents the play from April 27 to May 1.
The relationship at the heart of all three versions of “Aimée and Jaguar” is forbidden in many ways. Lilly Wurst (whose secret name is Aimée) is the love-starved wife of an absent Nazi soldier who has had her share of sexual adventures with men. Not particularly politically engaged, she received the Maternal Bronze Cross for having four sons – four potential contributors to the German war effort.
Felice Schragenheim (Jaguar) is a well-educated poet who’s 10 years Lilly’s junior. A bohemian free spirit, she’s also a Jewish underground activist.
“They didn’t meet each other on Match.com,” says director Joseph Hanreddy, who retired after 17 years as director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater to run UW-Milwaukee’s graduate fellowship for directors and designers.
“These two women were opposites in every way, yet they become entwined in a way that we can’t possibly comprehend,” Hanreddy says. “The play becomes a play about the nature of love – the selfishness and the selflessness, the need versus the chemistry of passion. The play isn’t really about Nazis or Jews or lesbians – it is about love under heightened and intense circumstances.”
Hanreddy says he was initially drawn to the play partly because of his friendship with the playwright. The play has been cut by about a third, and was “in progress” for most of the semester, creating a tighter, more compelling production, he says.
For actors Liz Faraglia (Felice) and Ashley Sevedge (Lilly), working on this play has been an intense learning opportunity, both in terms of learning their trade and in learning about the tragic history of hatred.
“This has been the first time I’ve had a lesbian role,” Faraglia says. “Since I’m straight, I’ve had to focus on the character in new ways.”
For Sevedge, the difficulty her character faced in talking about things that were generally unspoken was particularly compelling.
In 1940s Germany, “Lily has such a hard time coming up with even the words to express what she’s feeling,” Sevedge says. “Even words like ‘normal’ and ‘different’ meant something so different to them than they mean to us today.”
Interestingly, even though lesbianism is the dramatic issue in their relationship early in the play, the Jewish issue becomes the primary danger by the end. Lily tells her mother that “love causes great harm.” Perhaps this is true in any age. But in a time of great danger it is particularly true.
“In actual circumstances, this play has nothing to do with us today,” Hanreddy says. “With an increasing openness about gay issues, it’s hard for many people today to relate to the challenge of being gay in the closing days of WWII. It was a taboo subject. It was considered a deviant choice. In universal terms, however, the play is about love in all its mystery.”