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The word fallbeil is German for guillotine. Translated literally, it means falling axe. Playwright Liz Maestri has chosen it as the title of her new play because the fallbeil is the method by which Sophie Scholl was executed on February 22, 1943, just hours after being convicted of treason.
Fallbeil is inspired by true events, but it’s not a biographical work. Scholl is one of two main characters through which Maestri explores themes of mortality, guilt, and forgiveness. The other is Else, a fictitious, modern day German woman who must decide whether or not to keep her brother, a severely injured veteran of the war in Afghanistan, on life support.
Sophie Scholl, along with her brother Hans Scholl, was a student at the University of Munich during World War II. She was a member of a resistance movement called The White Rose. The group conducted a non-violent leaflet campaign calling upon Germans to oppose the Nazi regime. On February 18th, Sophie was seen by a janitor in the act of throwing leaflets into the air at the University. She, Hans and fellow White Rose member Christoph Probst were all arrested, interrogated, tried and executed. Numerous other members of The White Rose were subsequently captured and killed. Today the Scholls are considered heroes in Germany, revered for the fortitude with which they faced interrogation and execution.
“It’s funny,” says Maestri, “because this script- I’ve had the most trouble with it of any script I’ve ever done. It’s really hard to do. And yet it’s the one that’s gotten the most traction out of all of them.” Fallbeil is her fifth full-length play. Taffety Punk Theatre Company produced her play Owl Moon in 2011, and more recently she’s had staged readings at Theatre J, at Baltimore’s E.M.P. Collective, and elsewhere. Maestri began researching and writing Fallbeil in 2011. The play Fringe audiences will see is still a work in progress, she says, though it’s very different from her first pass at the story.
The impulse to write came out of Maestri’s desire to connect with Sophie Scholl, whose life she finds both disturbing and inspiring. In the first draft, she wrote herself into the play. “I was imagining myself being able to talk to her, I was imagining myself asking her questions,” she explains, “in the first sketch pages I did, the character that’s now named Else was just named Red-headed Playwright.”
Maestri used her early drafts to win a grant from the DC Arts and Humanities Young Artists’ Program. With the money she paid dramaturg Elissa Goetschius and director Clementine Thomas to work with her for a year to develop and revise the script. She also staged readings to shop it around to companies and producers. Field Trip Theatre took note, offering her a new team of people with whom to workshop the play, including dramaturg Amanda Coffin, in the lead up to Fringe.
The Fringe production is an experiment for Maestri to see how well the script is working at this juncture. Even the title may change. “Actually my dramaturg asked, ‘So for the future, is this title working anymore?'” says Maestri, “So that’s something that I’m going to be thinking about. Also, I always have to repeat the title to everybody because it’s not an English word. So maybe it needs an English title.”
As I sit with Maestri over dinner, it’s clear that the challenges of this process went far beyond the usual strains of writing and workshopping and rewriting. The history of World War II exacts a toll on those who delve into it. Listening to her talk about Fallbeil reminds me of reading the sources and acknowledgements in Erik Larson’s novelistic history of pre-war Berlin, In the Garden of Beasts. “What I did not realize as I ventured into those dark days of Hitler’s rule,” writes Larson, “was how much the darkness would infiltrate my soul.”
It’s a sentiment to which Maestri can relate. “When I was writing the first draft,” she admits, “I had nightmares all the time. It was miserable. It was a miserable few months.” Her goal, she says, is “trying to understand how people could be enchanted by what was being sold to them.”
The Fringe production of Fallbeil may be a only stepping- stone to Maestri’s final play, because she is still wrestling with the questions that Sophie Scholl’s life raises about a world that required such bravery. Scholl was someone who spoke out against the atrocities of the Third Reich, but for Maestri, it’s important “to have conversations about people who did let it happen, because that’s something that we need to be conscious of as humans.”
So has writing Fallbeil satisfied her desire to speak with Sophie Scholl?
“Yes and no,” she replies. “I was really hoping in writing it, because I write about loss a lot. It’s something that I’m terrified of, I’m terrified of my own death, I’m terrified of others’, it just terrifies me. And so I hoped that by kind of communing with her in this, she would comfort me. But she didn’t.”
Fallbeilopens tonight at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church – Mountain, at 10 p.m. Other performances: July 14, 10:30 p.m.; July 19, 8:15 p.m.; July 24, 10:15 p.m.; July 27, 7:45 pm. Tickets are available here.