Dying for Love

Rethinking Mata Hari.

Exotic dancer, courtesan, spy. There’s no question that Margaretha Zelle — better known as Mata Hari — was all of these things. But at the moment she crumpled into “a pile of petticoats” in front of a French firing squad in 1917, Mata Hari became something greater, an enigma that troubles us to this day. For while she was a spy, she probably wasn’t a double agent, and a growing body of evidence indicates she was framed by paranoid men determined to make an example of a woman whose greatest crime was unconventionality.

CentralWorks has created an intense, fascinating new work that explodes the Mata Hari myth by examining the counterespionage charges that brought her before a military tribunal. Secretly imprisoned for four months, forced to undergo fourteen separate interrogations, and indicted by a fistful of transcribed radiograms originating from Berlin (later evidence would indicate that the transcripts had been faked), Zelle was doomed from the beginning. Upon coming to Paris she had created a fabulous new persona as a sacred temple dancer raised in Java (she was in fact a Dutch divorcée with no dance training), and the French army used that persona — and the fact that she took money for sex — to entrap her. CentralWorks’ script, developed in workshop and written by Gary Graves, pits Mata Hari (the regal and eminently composed Jan Zvaifler) against her interrogator Captain Bouchardon (Louis Parnell, torn between admiration and disdain) and a slew of officers, admirers, and patrons.

Mata Hari became a spy for love. Her fiancé, Russian army captain Vladimir “Vadime” Masloff (John Patrick Moore), lost an eye to mustard gas. Casting about for a way to support them, Zelle realized that her current profession wouldn’t, if you’ll pardon the expression, do the trick. So she gambled on a offer of employment from spymaster Georges Ladoux (Moore again) and lost. Fear of spies was high, and Ladoux was more interested in consolidating his own power than in the truth. Not to mention that, as Julie Wheelwright notes in her painstakingly researched The Fatal Lover: Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage, wartime France needed chaste, hardworking wives much more than it needed exotic courtesans. While she was one of the most brilliant stars of la belle époque, there was no place for Mata Hari, with her highly placed lovers and expensive tastes, in a country weary of war.

Like the best stripteases, the play doesn’t take everything off at once. Zelle veiled her life in so many layers of falsehood that even she had difficulty distinguishing between them (Wheelwright quotes a prison doctor who noted that toward the end of her incarceration, Zelle spoke nostalgically of a golden temple reflected in a winding river: a scrap of her false “Oriental” childhood). Zvaifler is by turns contemptuous, seductive, and outraged in her dance with interrogator Bouchardon, who always stays close, hounding Zelle with the bad intelligence Ladoux is feeding him and making little attempt to conceal his distaste for her, even as his fascination with her as a woman grows.

Jeff Wincek and John Patrick Moore, each playing a full handful of men, do excellent jobs of keeping their characters separate through the use of simple props and accents. It’s ironic that Moore plays both Vadime and Ladoux, the two men who will betray Zelle most thoroughly; Moore is a puppy as the former and a snarling Doberman as the latter. Wincek plays most of Zelle’s admirers with the right blend of fascination and upper-crust snootiness, while making her persecutors seem truly frightening. Overall it seems that no matter how smart, well-connected, and innocent Mata Hari was, social hysteria stood against her. CentralWorks’ play should go a long way in exonerating her, while making audiences think about how fear can cloud even our best judgment.

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