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.

Supplemental Information:  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 (CRITIC'S PICK)

"...deft writing... amazing performances... keeps us riveted..." -L.A. THEATRE REVIEW

" absorbing drama - well worth seeing." -ARTSBEAT L.A.

(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 & Natasha Norman

Mark Bramhall Jeanne Syquia & Mark Bramhall Mark Bramhall & Ian Patrick Williams Jeanne Syquia & Mark Bramhall Jeanne Syquia & Mark Bramhall Jeanne Syquia, Mark Bramhall, Jacob Sidney & Jessica Sherman

Photos by C.M Gonzalez
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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)

Additional funding for Puzzler
provided by

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.




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 noir.

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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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 at work.

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.

--Dany Margolies
© 2011 Backstage

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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 documents.

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 writing.

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 coincidence.

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 coach.)

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 her.

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.

--Geoff Hoff
© 2011 L.A. Theatre Review

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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 decades.

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.

--Pauline Adamek
© 2011 ArtsBeatLA

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