@ The Black Box Theatre, 430 N. Main St.

Aunt Raini

by Tom Smith, directed by Ceil Herman

  • L to R: Toni Marie (Aunt Raini) and Patrick Payne (Joel)
  • L to R: Patrick Payne (Joel) and Beth LeCocq (Katherine)
  • L to R: Patrick Payne (Joel) and Beth LeCocq (Katherine)
  • L to R: Toni Marie (Aunt Raini) and Beth LeCocq (Katherine)
  • L to R: Beth LeCocq (Katherine) and Patrick Payne (Joel)

Apr 21-Jun 11, 2006


The world premiere of Aunt Raini


Aunt Raini
Written By
Assistant Director
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Properties Design
Scenic Artists
Scenic Artists
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Set Construction Crew
Set Construction Crew
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Set, Light & Sound Design
Sound Board Operator
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Aunt Raini:
Questioning the meaning of art

- By Joel Courtney, Las Cruces Bulletin

Is the greatness of art determined by the subject matter?

Regardless of what your opinion is, you will find that "Aunt Raini," the newest work by local playwright Tom Smith, presents a great story using the backdrop of a controversial figure.

The story revolves around the work of Leni Riefens-tahl, a world-renowned filmmaker who is best known for creating "Triumph of the Will" as a documentary of the Reich Party Congress 1934 in Nuremberg. "Triumph of the Will" and other works of Riefenstahl are considered by many to be propaganda pieces for the Nazi Party, which led to her being a pariah amongst the art and film communities.

The title character for "Aunt Raini" is Riefenstahl, who has come to New York City to visit her grandniece Katherine. Katherine is a successful art gallery owner, known as "The Great Revealer" for her ability to find the best up-and-coming artists. One of Katherine's greatest successes is her boyfriend Joel, a photographer, who also happens to be Jewish.

The majority of the play takes place in Katherine's apartment, which is filled with art and photography magazines and has paintings and photographs lining the walls.

Lighting and sound quality come up mostly during surreal moments, where a strobing effect and the sound of a projector give the effect of watching an old-time film.

The first half of the production shows Joel meeting with Aunt Raini and their ensuing arguments about the nature of great art. Should it inspire others or can it stand alone? Can the angle of light change the moaning of a photograph? Is a photograph meant to show truth, and. can it still show truth despite the photo changing abilities of modern computers?

Even if you've never thought about these ideas, by the intermission you will find yourself leaning to one side of the argument. Raini comes across as the consummate, perfectionist artist, not content with perfection in her own work, but seeking it everywhere.
As Smith wrote in his author's note, "Leni lent herself to characterization so easily: she was larger-than-life, opinionated, controversial."

"The play is like a documentary of the amazing and horrible life of Leni. She was so with it and passionate. I looked at art because of the obvious connection that she has," Smith said.

Toni Marie (Aunt Raini) does an excellent job of portraying the larger-than-life Riefenstahl. I actually felt the conviction in her arguments about art and condemnations of Joel and modern movies. Beth LeCocq (Katherine) portrays the frustration of being torn between the man she loves and a woman who is her only family. "It required a lot of going back to the script and thinking about the character. Katherine is torn in two directions and is forced to make a difficult decision," LeCocq said.

Patrick Payne (Joel) easily shifts from the man eager to come across well to his girlfriend's relative, to an artist that is willing to do what it takes to make a name for himself.

The director, Ceil Herman, has directed for Las Cruces Community Theatre, A Children's Theatre, Sin Fronteras and Opportunities for Creative Theater Students, in addition to the No Strings Theatre Company. Herman does a wonderful job of guiding her crew through a very emotional piece.

"I'm Jewish...and this whole thing is part of our heritage. I like plays about relationships and what art is. The purpose of theatre is to enlighten," Herman said.

Overall, it was great night of theatre, which I will always remember as my first world premiere. I strongly suggest that anyone who loves the theatre go see "Aunt Raini" in its first performance, before it moves on to bigger venues.

Aunt Raini: Great Theater... Great Fun!
- By Socorro Reporter, © 2006 SONewMex.com - Permission to Reprint Granted

Every so often one gets a chance to enjoy something truly unique and new at the theater. Such was the case recently when my partner and I drove the 150 miles from Socorro to Las Cruces to attend and enjoy one of the world-premiere performances of Las Cruces playwright Tom Smith's fascinating new play, Aunt Raini at the Black Box Theater in Las Cruces' downtown mall.

The play is intriguing and well written. Mr. Smith is clearly a master of his craft and it shows. The performance by cast members of the No Strings Theater Company was compelling, fascinating and just complicated enough to keep the audience on the edge of their seats - trying to guess what was coming next.

The play has a completely unexpected plot involving a successful New York gallery owner named Katherine - played to perfection by Beth LeCocq, her self-serving and easy-to-dislike photographer-boyfriend, Joel - flawlessly performed by Patrick Payne, and Katherine's German-born great-Aunt Raini - impeccably acted by seasoned Thespian Toni Marie - who happens to be visiting her niece when the farce begins.

Working as a team, Tom Smith and producer/director Ceil Herman manage to gently help their rapt audience understand, enjoy and appreciate a complex fictional tapestry involving the many threads and layers of the fabric of the life and death of the famous 101-year-old German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. On its surface, the tale carefully considers the fine line between art and propaganda. But in the end, the yarn Smith spins seems to have more to do with trust and secrets and the ways we as individuals shamelessly use one another to achieve our own ends than it does with anything else.

Fiction though it may be, I suspect Riefenstahl would have heartily approved of Smith's work. What higher praise can one pay such an effort?

From opening scene to final curtain Tom Smith manages to keep the audience guessing and thinking the whole way through. By the time the play ends the fact that it raises more questions than it answers really doesn't matter much. It definitely kept us discussing the performance all the way home.

What IS certain is that everyone who sees this play goes away subtly changed and challenged by it. Ultimately, isn't that what good theater is supposed to be about?

On a five point scale, I give Aunt Raini five stars for acting, directing, for script and for being thought-provoking. The next time Aunt Raini shows up in Las Cruces, be sure to catch it... But you may have to wait a while. I suspect the play may be bound for New York next. It's certainly worthy of such venues. To enjoy more images from the performance of this play, visit our Aunt Raini Photo Gallery here.

To writer, producer/director and cast, I say "You did a great job. Bravo!" To would-be patrons I say, "You missed a darn fine performance. Be sure not to miss this company's next show -- which, by-the-way, just happens to be running now." No Strings Theater Company runs 10 plays per year. So there's sure to be one running almost every month.

For information on upcoming performances by No Strings Theater Company at Black Box Theater, visit our Las Cruces Community Forum and look for announcements or check the Las Cruces upcoming events calendar we provide there. You can also visit the following web site:

No Strings Theater Company

Clearly, we enjoyed the No Strings Theater troupe's Aunt Raini performance. Their current play is titled "Songs for a New World". It premiered at Black Box Theater on May 26th and runs on weekends through June 11.

My best advice is, 'Don't miss their next play." This theater company is definitely worthy of your support. Enuf said.

World premiere of "Aunt Raini" at the Black Box Theatre
Play discusses the delicate line between art and morality

- Claire D'Mura, NMSU Roundup

Coming from a time when legacies were sharply divided between heroes and villians, Leni Riefenstahl refuses to settle on any side.

The Black Box Theatre presents the world premiere of Tom Smith's "Aunt Raini" on Friday.
The play is loosely based on the life of Leni Riefenstahl, who was the personal documentarian of Adolf Hitler and directed the famous film Triumph of the Will.

The play focuses on the lives of three people, Aunt Raini (Toni Marie), Raini's niece Katherine (Beth LaCocq) and Katherine's boyfriend Joel (Patrick Payne).

"The whole premise is pretty fictionalized," Smith said. The characters of Katherine and Joel are not real, but the attitudes and conflict they represent are forever ingrained in the consciousness of post-World War II society.

The play is not a biography of Riefenstahl, but works to show how the atrocities of World War II continue to pervade societal consciousness and how figures that fall into the gray area of war may never be allowed to find a resting place between good and evil.

Smith never names Aunt Raini as Riefenstahl directly. He takes care to be sure Riefenstahl's doppelganger is as much a reflection of the real-life character as possible.

"I wanted to create a character whose life is every bit like Leni Riefenstahl's," he said.

In the beginning, the characters of Katherine and Joel take over the action of play, and Katherine treats Aunt Raini like a child. It is in the latter half, after secrets are revealed and Raini's life takes center stage that the play picks up the pace and Raini gets rolling. As Raini's life takes on greater importance, tension grows ever greater between the young couple as they are swept into a maelstrom of public attention.

The real-life controversy of Riefenstahl's work is played out through Katherine and Joel, who are both heavily immersed in the art world, Katherine as a gallery owner, and Joel as a Jewish photographer.

While Aunt Raini plays second-fiddle to her own legacy, the most intriguing aspect of the play is what Raini herself has to say about art and life, even if nobody is listening.
"Aunt Raini" raises questions the same way the work of Riefenstahl's work does, but with humanizing dramatization through Katherine and Joel.

Smith said one of the questions that intrigued him while putting the play together was the question of, "Can you create art without a point of view?"
The main questions that are raised by the play focus on the definitions of what is art, propaganda and politics.

Smith and Ciel Herman, director of "Aunt Raini" found common ground about the questions the play raised in regard to art. "Like Tom, I was very interested in the life of Leni Riefenstahl," Herman said. "I had really strong feelings about the time." "As a theater owner, the question about what is art and what isn't is important to making decisions about what to do here," Herman said.

Smith said the play addresses the line between the personal and political. "As society becomes a little less political, those lines get blurred," he said. "I think it gets fuzzy for me as an artist." For example, he asked if it is a political statement to cast a Hispanic person in a traditionally white role.

The questions become hopelessly interwoven and the relationship between the characters collapses. The degree to which Riefenstahl was involved with the Nazi party is the most prominent debate on her life to date. "Nobody can say with absolute certainty if she was involved," Smith said. Riefenstahl went to trial after the war was over, but the court did not find enough evidence of her support for the Nazi party to convict her. Smith said, however, that the public thinks because she worked so close to Hitler, she must have been involved.
"She believed she was completely innocent," Smith said. "Unfortunately, history will remember her as Hitler's documentarian."

Marie, who watched six documentaries on Riefenstahl's life before tackling the part of Aunt Raini, said: "There was so much more to this woman. She was before her time."
She emphasized that Riefenstahl was a famous actress before becoming a director for Hitler's documentaries. Marie said she does not think Riefenstahl's films were necessarily political. "They were from an artistic point of view," she said.

Riefenstahl, while remaining a controversial figure, has been noted for her innovative camera work. She was the first person to use a camera on rails and is remembered for her use of aerial photography and telephoto lenses. Triumph of the Will has been billed as the greatest propaganda film of all time and has won awards in the United States, France and Sweden, as well as in Germany, despite its Nazi connections.

Contemporary movie directors such as George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Ridley Scott have studied the film, and Lucas imitated several famous scenes in the Star Wars films.
Just as there are no clear answers about how Leni Riefenstahl's work should be interpreted, there are no clear good and bad characters.

Aunt Raini changes from cranky old woman to strong artistic genius. Katherine is a kind but babying niece and later a liar and then defender of art. At one point Joel seems to be the most sensible among them but becomes the most irrational. Payne said the character of Joel is highly conflicted. "He's in love, and also a non-practicing Jew, and he becomes manipulated.
Joel, whose main shtick is photographs of Hasidic Jews, finds his work climbing the ladder of the art world as a result of the controversy over the life of Aunt Raini. "Joel's work could be considered propaganda as well," Smith said.

Joel's conflicting position within the story asks even more questions about his relationship with Katherine, such as who is using who, who is the bigger hypocrite and even who has been more propagandized.

Smith said he became interested in the life of Riefenstahl in 2003 when he came across an article on the actress's death at age 101. "She was the last living vestige of the people who worked directly under Adolf Hitler," he said. He said he became fascinated with her life and knew she would make a great stage character, but he did not wish to make it a biographical play because there had already been movies of her life that allow Riefenstahl to tell her own story.

Smith said he discussed the play with Herman, who volunteered to direct the play herself.
Smith said he chose to debut the play at the Black Box because he has premiered work there before, and he wanted to be able to attend rehearsals and help smooth out the script, which has been changing every step of the way.

Local playwright's latest examines art vs. propaganda
- By Amanda L. Husson , Sun-News [Apr 21, 2006]

No matter how gifted and prolific an artist you are in your long and storied career, can your art ever be seen as "just art" if it was once a part of something terrible that changed the course of human events? And, as an artist, how much responsibility must you bear when your art is used to perpetrate crimes of the most evil nature?

These are among the questions raised in a new play by Las Cruces playwright, director and instructor Tom Smith. "Aunt Raini," opening tonight at the Black Box Theatre, is loosely based on the life of Leni Riefenstahl, a filmmaker who was the documentarian for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Smith said he was drawn to Riefenstahl, whose film, "Triumph of the Will" is widely considered the best example of propaganda in film history, after reading of her death in 2003 at the age of 101 and watching a documentary on her life in which she defended her work under the Nazi regime as art and documentary filmmaking.

"She was very passionate about her beliefs," Smith said. "She insisted it was a documentary and it wasn't her point of view. But the question is, can an artist ever not have their point of view in their work?"

The play is Smith's first to be based on a real historical figure, and he said while he was true to the facts of her life and the dialogue is true to her, the situation in which he places the character of Raini was constructed by him. Raini arrives from Germany to visit her grandniece, Katherine, a successful gallery owner, and her Jewish boyfriend, Joel.

"The play grapples a lot with the difference between art and propaganda," Smith said.

Ceil Herman, No Strings Theatre Company's artistic director and director of this production, said she was immediately interested when Smith proposed staging the new work at the Black Box Theatre.

"I thought the content of it was really interesting," she said. "What is art? Is it art if it deals with something terrible? And if it deals with something terrible, should it be available for the public to view?"

Herman said the play is designed to ask questions, rather than answer them.

"It's absolutely designed to get you thinking," she said. "I think the audience will really be stimulated to think about it for a long time."

Smith said the play is still a work in progress and what the audience thinks may play a role in how the finished product turns out.

"It will be really beneficial for me to hear it out loud and hear from the audience," he said. "Depending on the audience's reaction, I'll probably tweak it a little."

Herman said working on a play that is still being finalized is both challenging and rewarding.

"All the options are there when you're working on something new," she said. "It's really exciting, because it's hot off the press. The play really could end in a number of ways."

Aunt Raini is played by Toni Marie, last seen at the Black Box Theatre as Emily Dickinson in "Belle of Amherst." Katherine is played by Beth LeCocq, last seen at the Black Box Theatre in "Getting Out." Joel is played by Patrick Payne, who performed in "Gray," another play written by Tom Smith, which premiered at the Black Box Theatre in 2001.


No seating plan has been posted.


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