By James Bartholomew
Geli Raubal is in love with a certain someone. He’s authoritative and powerful, yet gentle and kind. A cultured opera buff with an unpretentious laugh. Dignified, distinguished and constantly working, but always with time for Geli. There are just two problems. For one, he’s her uncle and almost two decades her senior. The other issue? The someone in question is Adolf Hitler.
The story certainly sounds stranger than fiction ‑ stranger still for being so seemingly forgotten to time. But writer and performer Pia Vicioso‑Vila has made it her aim to tell Geli’s little‑known story to the world in “Geli and Uncle Alf,” a haunting look at the relationship between a young girl and the most hateful and evil man of the last century. Broken into distinct chapters spanning from Geli’s childhood to her violent death at the age of 23, “Geli and Uncle Alf” is a tragic coming‑of‑age story made all the more powerful by Ms. Vicioso‑Vila’s wonderful performance. The romance itself is as dark and twisted as they come, but Ms. Vicioso‑Vila’s Geli is so charismatic and innocent that it’s almost easy to forget the true horror of her situation.
Geli is vibrant and youthful, steeped in limitless energy and excitement. It’s a choice that, for Ms. Vicioso‑Vila, is more nuanced than initially seems. It’s easy to imagine a schoolgirl giggling over a secret, forbidden love, but Geli’s whimsy and sincerity work disarming magic as she tries to convince the audience that her infamous uncle is a sweet and loving man. Geli is completely blind to the unfathomable evil her uncle is capable of. Even as she holds a half‑eaten sandwich to her nose to make fun of her uncle’s choice of moustache ‑ a look even now inextricably linked to Nazism ‑ Ms. Vicioso‑Vila is so effective at showing Geli’s love for “Uncle Alf” that the dictator seems like just another lighthearted crush for a misguided schoolgirl.
But of course, Uncle Alf is not the sweet man Geli imagines him to be. After she agrees to live with him in his Munich apartment, Geli finds every aspect of her life under surveillance and control. When she finally disobeys his orders by seeing a boy her own age, Uncle Alf shows Geli his potential for cruelty and depravity. Again, Ms. Vicioso‑Vila carries even the heaviest moments in the show with grace and ease. Even as Geli turns from a spirited young girl to a disillusioned victim, Ms. Vicioso‑Vila plays Geli with the heart and sympathy necessary to make her unbelievably bizarre story feel harrowing and raw.
The performance is even more commendable considering how insufficiently Geli as a character is fleshed out on the page. Apart from the show’s prologue and epilogue, there are only two sorts of scenes in “Geli and Uncle Alf.” First, there are soliloquies in which Geli shares a memory of her Uncle Alf, or reacts privately to a recent event in their lives together. Then, there are scenes in which Geli has a one‑sided dialogue with an offstage character ‑ sometimes with a friend, sometimes with her uncle ‑ and the conversation inevitably revolves around Uncle Alf. In fact, while Geli is the only character the audience spends time with, Uncle Alf dominates almost every discussion.
Perhaps it is inevitable that any work about the extended family of Adolf Hitler would be overshadowed by the man himself, but it seems especially regrettable in “Geli and Uncle Alf.” Despite Ms. Vicioso‑Vila’s strong performance, Geli, as she is on the page, is tied inescapably to her uncle and his abuses. What little personality is written for her at the show’s outset exists mainly to be distorted by the controlling Uncle Alf. Even the drastic action she takes at the end of the play is brought about as much by her shame over Uncle Alf’s infidelity, as by her desire to be free of him. And while Ms. Vicioso‑Vila showers Geli in swaths of personality, it’s difficult to imagine her with much of an inner world outside of her obsession with her uncle.
The end result is a piece with brilliant execution but some thematic inconsistency. Geli Raubal’s suffering should be remembered, but the play does little to contextualize that suffering, and instead merely showcases it. That might be for the best, given how bizarre the real-life relationship between Geli Raubal and Adolf Hitler was, but given the laudable performance, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the turbid subtext and rote characterization.
“Geli and Uncle Alf” is the sort of play so close to perfection that its few flaws, minor though they are, stick out with obstinacy. Thankfully, those missteps don’t obscure a powerful and poignant performance by Ms. Vicioso‑Vila, who brings to Geli a radiant warmth and boundless sorrow. It’s possible that a few edits could make this play something truly transformative, but even as is, “Geli and Uncle Alf” comes highly recommended.
“Geli And Uncle Alf”
Performed by Pia Vicioso-Vila
Directed by Philip Church
October 25 at 6 PM
Photo: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theatre Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
Follow us on Facebook
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.