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Production Revisits ‘The Trial of Mata Hari’

DIJO Productions and Victoria Hall Theater open the summer season with a riveting selection.

The great majority of us, when we hear the name Mata Hari, probably form a composite image of all the women mothers used to warn their sons about: a promiscuous and seductive exotic dancer who used her sexual allurements to obtain military secrets from the French to sell to the Germans during World War I. It comes as a bit of a shock to find that Mata Hari not only was a documented and frequently photographed historical personage, but might not have been a spy at all.

Mata Hari – born Gertrud Margarete Zelle – was tried by the French as a spy and executed by firing squad on Oct. 15, 1917.

Notwithstanding recent historical doubts about her guilt or innocence, Mata Hari – born Gertrud Margarete Zelle – was tried by the French as a spy and executed by firing squad on Oct. 15, 1917. Much was made of the case, as an occasion for sensationalist press coverage and anti-German propaganda, and reporters flocked to the execution. They said she met her death “stoically.”

About 90 years later, after the surprise success of their production of The Persians, DIJO Productions and Victoria Hall Theater open their summer season of buffet lunches and dramatic readings at Victoria Hall Theater with a play that turns most of what we think we know about Mata Hari on its head. Based on newly translated documents released by Dutch and French authorities, Elaine Kendall’s The Trial of Mata Hari is directed by Meredith McMinn and features actors Bill Egan, Ken Gilbert, Ed Giron, Brian Harwell, Deborah Helm, Nick Hoyle, Caci King and Jerry Oshinsky.

Covering the two crucial years when Mata Hari was investigated, arrested, tried, convicted and executed, the drama has the contemporary theme of transformation – how a complex, individual human being is transformed, in the public mind, into a one-dimensional “image” of either goodness or villainy, according to the needs of the powers that be.

Zelle was born Aug. 7, 1876, in Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, the daughter of a well-to-do hatter. She attended a teachers college in the town of Leiden. In 1895, she married Capt. Campbell MacLeod (of Scottish ancestry, who was then serving in the Dutch army). From 1897 to 1902, the couple lived in Java and Sumatra, which were then Dutch colonies. They separated upon their return to Europe, and Gertrud began appearing as a dancer on the Paris stage, first as Lady MacLeod and later as Mata Hari – Javanese for “eye of the morning – which she kept until her death.

She became a star and took a number of lovers, including many military officers – and thereby hangs the tale. Kendall’s play explores the interweave of circumstance and guilt-by-association by which Mata Hari was ensnared and exploited as a scapegoat for France’s many military failures in the Great War. She was turned into what Jorge Luis Borges called “a necessary dragon.”

The Trial of Mata Hari plays at 12:15 p.m. and 8 p.m. June 19 in the Victoria Hall Theater, 33 W. Victoria St. For tickets and more information, click here or call 800.494.8497.

Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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