JANUARY 21 - FEBRUARY 26, 2011
Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 8 P.M.
plus Sunday Matinee, Feb. 20 at 2 P.M.
Preview: Thursday, January 20 at 8 P.M.
Tickets: $20 (Preview: $15)
Buy Tickets Online
or call (310) 281-8337
Hired as a "puzzler" by the German Government, Niklas Keller spends
his days piecing together shredded Stasi files left behind from the
collapse of East Germany. However, when a young American woman shows up
to do research for her thesis, questions are raised about who each of
them really are, what hidden connections exist between them, and what
really happened one winter day in 1973 West Berlin.
What is a Puzzler?
"GO... an emotionally and intellectually absorbing
production of a smart and sometimes intoxicating play." - L.A. WEEKLY
"...universal, timeless and haunting." -BACKSTAGE
"...deft writing... amazing performances... keeps
us riveted..." -L.A. THEATRE REVIEW
"...an absorbing drama - well worth seeing." -ARTSBEAT
(read full reviews below)
CAST: Mark Bramhall, Jessica Sherman, Jacob Sidney, Ruth Silveira,
Jeanne Syquia & Ian Patrick Williams
Understudies: Marianne Davis, Douglas Gabrielle, Michael Holmes &
Photos by C.M Gonzalez
Pause slideshow by hovering the cursor over the
Padraic Duffy (Playwright/Director)
Annette Fasone, JJ Mayes & Emily Kosloski (Producers)
Adam Bitterman (Video Design)
Nike Doukas (Dialect Coach)
Douglas Gabrielle (Lighting Design)
Caitlin Guza (Stage Manager)
Ryan Johnson (Composer)
Amy Levinson (Dramaturg)
Tifanie McQueen (Set Design)
Jamie Robledo (Asst. Director/Sound Design)
Kiff Scholl (Graphic Design)
Caleb Terray (Fight Choreographer)
Kubilay Uner (Additional Music)
Matt Valle (Props/Costume Design)
funding for Puzzler
was also developed in part
with help from the Playwrights Union,
a network of Los Angeles theater artists
writing for stage, TV, and film.
L.A. WEEKLY (GO!)
The sun of life's parts
In writer-director Padraic Duffy's new play, Puzzler, which
opened last week at Sacred Fools Theater, Niklas Keller (Mark Bramhall),
now in his 70s, sits at a desk somewhere in Germany, rifling through
documents shredded by the East German secret police years ago. His
needle-in-a-haystack search is for a fragment of a conversation, for a
woman, his wife, for a fleeting marriage that dissolved before his eyes
in a world where everybody was being watched and nothing was certain.
His Quixotic search is for certainty, for an understanding of why said
wife disappeared, after that conversation, in which she promised
somebody, some man in a trench coat, that she would see him later that
day. It was a clandestine rendezvous in which both man and woman were
incognito (except to each other). After she met with that man, Keller
never saw his wife again.
Keller pieces together that conversation from tiny slips of paper found
in sacks of shredded documents that the contemporary government is
analyzing in order to understand the now-defunct East German mentality.
That conversation shows up again on film, actually a live re-enactment
performed by Jessica Sherman and Jacob Sidney. Her neck is wrapped in a
purple scarf, and she carries the kind of white handbag that was de
rigueur for East German spies. He's in a trench coat. It's all very
Meanwhile, as Keller sifts through the fragments of paper and print,
like an anthropologist, a Narrator (Ruth Silveira) sits perched above
the roof of his office, spying on Keller and his obsessions. Whenever
he, or his new, oddly sympathetic supervisor, Fischer (Ian Patrick
Williams), speaks in German, the Narrator translates into English.
There's also the pressure of time, since the following day, Fischer
explains, government workers are arriving to collect the shredded
documents, presumably to dispose of them. Enough is enough, the
contemporary government has said. So Keller must find whatever he's
looking for tonight. He must somehow justify to his supervisor his
desire to stay all night at the office.
A young American woman named Robin (Jeanne Syquia), who says she's a
student, arrives on this night with access to that office. She seems to
know something about Keller's disappeared wife, and he's sharp enough to
recognize that her explanations for what she's doing in Germany — even
the route she took from Los Angeles, and the way she got past Fischer —
amount to dissembling.
And so Duffy's romantic thriller follows a kind of Agatha Christie
logic, as revealed in a smoky Fritz Lang flick where nobody is quite who
they claim to be. All that intel and disguise masks the truth.
While the audience is trying to fathom the puzzle of who is who, against
the secretive backdrop of political intrigue, Keller is trying to fathom
the more profound mystery of what lay in his wife's heart. Whether she
chose to abandon him; whether she was forced to do so; whether she was
killed; if so, when, and why?
Their youthful romance provided the driving purpose of his life, and
he's spent the better part of it alone, trying to comprehend it, by
spending a bit too much emotion dwelling in cemeteries and with ghosts.
The flashbacks provide the keenest sense of film noir that Duffy's play
winks at. There's an almost choreographic panache to the swirl with
which Sherman and Sidney move. Less so in the present tense, where
Syquia's Robin, having crashed in from L.A., brings with her an acting
style more cinema vérité than noir. Bramhall's Keller and Williams'
Fischer wobble between the two worlds. The consequence is a kind of
emotional investment in a sentimental love story, pinched at times by
the sly visual jokes on film style that Duffy clearly adores.
Duffy's conclusion about the essence of love is strategically and wisely
enigmatic. His play is a wistful riff on a genre that tended to
accentuate style over substance. It's inevitable that an homage to such
a genre would be bound by some of the same restrictions: insights based
as truisms. Yet its affection for the form, and for its characters, is
so much more satisfying than a parody.
The result is an emotionally and intellectually absorbing production of
a smart and sometimes intoxicating play.
--Steven Leigh Morris
© 2011 L.A. Weekly
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BACKSTAGE (CRITIC'S PICK!)
Just like the protagonist of Padraic Duffy's
script must do, the audience must patiently put together this complex,
layered work and find meaning in the task. Niklas Keller is one of the
very few government workers, called puzzlers, assigned to piece together
the shredded documents that the East German "security" forces kept on
its citizens. In a completely gripping performance as Keller, Mark
Bramhall layers on his own artistry. He masters — at least to these ears
— a German accent and a German physicality of posture and gesture and
walk. But Bramhall also conveys to us every feeling and thought his
character has. His Keller is driven, possessed by his history, and
obsessed by an undying love.
Duffy's directs with clarity if not with the imagination his writing
shows. His staging works well for scenes within the office space and for
the area above it, where the elegant Narrator (Ruth Silveira) hangs out,
interpreting the occasional German dialogue and serving as chorus. Duffy
creates undercurrents in which glances between characters confuse and
intrigue us. But his direction clunks to a halt when we see actors
emerge from a curtain to take their places, re-enacting a bit of film or
placing an ungainly phone call. Fortunately, Ian Patrick Williams, as
Keller's supervisor, certainly does what he can with a bland but
plot-driving role, and Jeanne Syquia evokes ambiguity while enhancing
the story's mystery as the young woman who brings her own agenda,
whether personal or professional, to Keller's office on his last night
Still, the story as Duffy tells it is universal, timeless, and haunting.
Keller goes through large bags of shredded materials, grasping names and
words and images that might match up and pasting them onto a new page to
re-create a long-past lifetime. All our memories are now fragments, and
we cling to the good ones — replaying them and following them as far as
we can, then trying to paste them into permanence. And when we remember
those people we most love, we just might do everything possible to join
with them in memory — at least until the memories become too painful.
© 2011 Backstage
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L.A. THEATRE REVIEW
Everyone is watching someone and in turn
being watched by someone. This isn’t paranoia, it is simple fact. It has
been so for some time, but more so now, with the interconnectedness that
the Internet brings us. The play Puzzler, now in its world
premier at Sacred Fools, begins in a brightly lit, orderly room
containing a desk and chair and several bags of shredded documents.
These are documents gathered by the Stasi, the Ministry for State
Security, in pre-reunification East Germany.
The paper, the documents, were compiled on every citizen in East
Germany. It was estimated that every 10th person was a Stasi informant,
so most people’s lives were very well documented. When the Wall fell,
the people wanted to read their files, which had all been shredded. The
new government gave 24 federal employees the task of reconstructing the
An old man sits at the desk, peering through a magnifying glass, piecing
together the shreds, trying to reconstruct the documents. He seems to be
looking for something specific.
In the crawlspace above him, he is being watched by an old woman, who
has orders to observe him, note every time he says the name Sara, and,
if ever she hears him utter a specific phrase, a “password”, to then
take him away and keep him safe. The people watched each other. The
government watched the people. This old man is watching what that
government did. The woman in the crawlspace is watching him. And, she is
quick to remind us, we, the audience, are watching her.
The script for Puzzler, by Padraic Duffy, is tight and
compelling. It is a satisfying mixture of ultra realism, surrealism,
suspense, political thriller and a bit of the mystical. We find out
early that Niklas Keller (the amazing Mark Bramhall) is looking for a
very specific document, a transcript of a very specific conversation. We
follow him through one very long night that begins when he finds one
small shred from that document and must end the next morning, when
computers are brought in to replace him at his task. There are things
that seem innocuous that turn out not to be, things that seem innocent
that aren’t, things that seem dire or foreboding that are actually
innocent. Every moment we get a new shred of information that makes the
entire story become something new, until the end, when we get the one
piece that has been hidden and it all becomes clear. This is very deft
There are a few things that rely overly much on coincidence, which is
acknowledged but not quite satisfactorily. A young American college
student shows up working on her thesis. That she shows up on the very
night when 1) the one bag of shreds Mr. Keller has been looking for for
fifteen years finally shows up and 2) the last night that it will be
possible for Keller to go through the paper is at hand, is a bit of a
jump, but the twists and turns, the changing meaning of words spoken,
the slow revelation of the conversation, then of the many layers and
meanings of that conversation, more than make up for that reliance on
There are a couple of amazing performances. As mentioned, Mark Bramhall
is Mr. Keller, a lonely, driven, curmudgeonly man desperate to pull
together the final threads of his life before it’s too late. To praise
an actor’s accent seems a completely inappropriate way to express his
talent. Any good actor will have done his homework, the accent being
just a small part of that. However, Mr. Bramhall didn’t just do a German
accent. He completely embodied an aging German man. There was never a
moment when we were aware that it was any kind of craft or in any way
something other than the way he spoke and was. This was true of every
aspect of his performance. (Special mention to Nike Doukas, the dialect
Ian Patrick Williams plays Fischer, Keller’s boss, and was also
completely German, a solicitous bureaucrat. Again, though, as with
everything in this play, Fischer may not be what he seems, and Mr.
Williams brings us along with these new circumstances as they are
presented quite pleasantly.
The woman in the crawlspace is played by Ruth Silveira. She is narrator,
observer, participant and interpreter. She seems sometimes almost
omniscient, then completely puzzled or frightened by what transpires or
might transpire. It is a challenging role, she must spend the entire two
acts sitting in a very small space, but we are compelled by her
performance and she is able to keep us grounded as we puzzle through it.
The two people who had that conversion Mr. Keller is so keen on finding
are played by Jessica Sherman and Jacob Sidney. We see the conversation
and hear it via tape, film and memory, each time with new meaning that
we bring to it and what seems, perhaps, a flat performance the first
time becomes, by the end, so rich and layered as to be daunting, and
both actors bring us through that seamlessly.
The final actor is Jeanne Syquia as Robin, the college student. She is a
good actress, but not quite up to the depth of experience required of
Mr. Duffy also directed the play and did so with a sure hand. At the
beginning, when nothing seems to make much sense, he keeps us riveted
while new information falls into place and new mysteries are revealed.
The set, by Tifanie McQueen, was simple and very effective. The lighting
by Douglas Gabrielle was subtle and very good. Sound was by Jaime
Robledo and was very well thought out and executed although at times
interfered with the dialogue. The props and costumes were both by Matt
Valle and were both excellent.
© 2011 L.A.
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Written and directed by Padraic Duffy, and
making its world premiere, is a new and gripping play entitled
Puzzler, a gritty film noir tale about East German spies, the
reconstruction of memory and the loyalty of undying love.
Hired as a “puzzler” by the German Government, Niklas Keller (Mark
Bramhall) spends his days piecing together shredded secret police
‘Stasi’ files left behind after the collapse of East Germany during the
late 1980s. When a young American woman Robin (Jeanne Syquia) turns up
to do research for her thesis, questions are raised about who each of
them really are, what hidden connections exist between them and what
really happened one winter day in 1973 West Berlin.
Tifanie McQueen’s excellent, dual-level set is a basement office,
littered with overflowing bags and piles of shredded paper and broken
ribbons audiotape. Upstairs, in the ceiling, sits a silver-haired woman
(Ruth Silveira) who spies on Niklas and keeps a written record of his
behavior and utterances. She also poetically narrates the play with a
thick and authentic-sounding German accent, the soft tone of her voice
adding emotion to her clandestine task. This is a superb performance
from Silveira whose role holds some surprises.
Thematically similar to the Oscar-winning foreign movie The Secret
Lives of Others, the difference here is that this story is staged
after the Berlin Wall came down, though we do travel back to the
shrouded past as Niklas unearths and pieces together the very
surveillance episode he has been tirelessly seeking for almost two
We learn startling statistics such as the far-reaching efficiency of the
‘Stasi’ Secret Service organization; that there was one informant per
every 6.5 individuals. Many people were coerced by threats — that were
sometimes paired with incentives — to spy on each other. Clearly it was
a grim time in Germany’s history.
For the past sixteen years, Niklas has been sorting through 17,000 sacks
of these narrow, shredded materials, searching for one key word that
would lead him to the fragments of an important episode from the past.
Eventually we learn why this episode is so vitally important to him.
This subject matter will be familiar both to those who remember this
dark time in German history and to fans of The Secret Lives of Others,
although it approaches it from a slightly different stance than the
film. With his approach to his material, Padraic Duffy does a good job
in creating a sense of urgency and elusive hope within the virtual
futility of Niklas’ quest.
What is overplayed, however, is the use of the cinematic device of a
‘ticking clock,’ meaning that there is a finite period of time for our
hero to complete his task. With Puzzler Duffy introduces two
deadlines, which, rather than contribute a sense of urgency, just feel
forced. Firstly, Niklas has merely one long night to unearth the
remaining material he has only just uncovered before they take away
those sacks for good. Then there’s the mysterious American visitor Robin
(well-played by Jeanne Syquia – a brilliant actress) who barges into the
basement office, after hours, claiming she there to research her thesis.
Almost immediately the savvy Germans are suspicious of Robin’s story.
But who is she really and why is she there? Robin suffers a grilling,
but she’s quite a tough cookie. Without divulging too much, her presence
becomes the second ‘ticking clock’ element… I say to Duffy just pick one
because it all seems too contrived. During Act One I thought I divined
Robin’s true purpose and identity, but it turns out I was a little off
the mark, so bravo to the playwright for avoiding a predictable outcome.
Duffy’s play is gripping and emotional. Within some of his dialogue he
allows the space for poetic observations. This subject matter is
serious, yet there are droll quips from time to time. Above all,
Puzzler is an absorbing drama – well worth seeing.
© 2011 ArtsBeatLA
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