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Chekhov's "Ivanov," directed by Dimiter Gotscheff, Volksbuhne, Berlin. Photo: Thomas Aurin
Go Ost Young Man
By Kathleen Dimmick

Theater professionals in the United States have long been aware, not to say envious, of the generous institutional support that theater receives in Europe, resulting in large, permanent acting companies, extended rehearsal time, genuine repertory seasons, attention to dramaturgy and design, and so on. But it takes an actual experience of performance, particularly in Berlin, to bring home on a visceral and aesthetic level what this kind of social respect actually means for the theater. This is not simply a “director’s theater” of postmodern, design-driven approaches to production; it’s the fact of an accomplished and well-supported acting company in collaboration with politically and socially aware directors and producers that creates this intense feeling of engagement – a tangible correspondence between the work of the theater and its place in contemporary culture.

From the observation deck of Berlin’s TV tower – by far the highest vantage point in the city – it’s easy to spot the Volksbühne. There’s a big red and white sign on the roof that says OST, meaning East, of course, and referring to the theater’s location in what was the eastern sector of the city before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Berlin’s most political theater perhaps makes much of its former geopolitical location for the same reason that it has wrapped the faux classical columns across the front of the building in an enormous banner depicting the Palace of the Republic – one of the last remaining icons of the GDR, slated for demolition. Is the theater celebrating the history of this Communist-era eyesore or protesting its demise? The point is, the Volksbühne, with its sly artistic director, Frank Castorf, is constantly engaged in a critical dialogue of one form or another, not only with the powers that be but with its own constituency as well, all the while enjoying healthy popular and government support. It’s no surprise that the work it produces is equally engaged – politically, socially, aesthetically.

Ivanov, directed by Dimiter Gotscheff at the Volksbühne, was one of the highlights of the Berlin Theatertreffen, the annual juried festival of theater productions from across Germany. The production – which will be in rep at the theater for two years – is visually striking. The set is a constantly renewing blanket of fog – a boldly literal analogy to the existential anguish of the characters in Chekhov’s play. With no set or props, the familiar Chekhovian landscape is virtually eliminated, the actors entering and exiting via a flight of stairs below the naked stage. Dressed in eccentric contemporary costumes, the acting ensemble creates a profound sense of the reality of these late 19th-century, neurasthenic Chekovians, a reality that is somehow located in an equally profound sense of engagement with the enormous vitality of Berlin culture today. How is this feeling of contemporaneity achieved?

It’s not just that Volksbühne regular Samuel Finzi plays Ivanov in a blue tee-shirt with an English logo for a youth Day Camp stenciled on his chest, or that he’s often shuffling about the stage in a pair of pathetic bedroom slippers. Small and fit, he somehow invests the depressed, neurotic, hypochondriacal Ivanov with a feeling of real humanity – not the familiar “literary” boredom often associated with the character, but a genuine, often comic, struggle to find a reason – any reason – to live. This comic pathos plays out against a landscape of constant humiliation created by the rest of this superb ensemble. Ivanov is consistently acknowledged as the most interesting, attractive man in the community, yet his every endeavor – his marriage, his finances, his affair – seems to turn out poorly.

Chekhov's "Ivanov," Volksbuhne, Berlin. Photo: Thomas AurinMeanwhile, Borkin, his venal estate manager, played with gleeful smarminess by Milan Peschel, provides the jittery rhythmic counterpoint to Ivanov’s despair. All greedy plans and stratagems, Peschel embodies the comic and unfeeling heart of Chekhov’s great vulgarians. Sasha, Ivanov’s young love interest, played by Birgit Minichmayr, is a scrumptious vision in a tiny pink fur shorts set, announcing her entrance with a rusty squawk. The scenes between the male characters – Ivanov, Borkin, his uncle, and Sasha’s father – communicate a particularly strong sense of contemporary anomie – the need to act, together with the inability to act and a flitting awareness of this dilemma, all laced with a measure of vodka. Beckett’s comic Chekhovian heritage is palpable.

At the end of Chekhov’s play, Ivanov runs offstage and shoots himself. In the Volksbühne production, Ivanov, alone on stage, takes a spray can and dolefully paints a stick figure of a man with a gun pointed to his head on the back wall of the theater. Punctuating the portrait with a dot for the suicidal bullet, he exits quietly below. Joyless graffiti is everywhere in Berlin, especially in the east, and this last scenic gesture chillingly reinforces the contemporary feel of Ivanov’s condition. This, however, is not the end of the production. Peschel, who plays Borkin, delivers an atextual epilogue recounting his experience as an actor reading the play for the first time: he fell asleep, he says.

It is of course a staple of postmodern performance to include contemporary references to the process of theater-making and to the detritus of popular culture. Gotscheff’s production is no exception. The sound score, for example, is a collage of popular and classical standards, including a bit of lush Puccini. At two moments of collective mayhem, Sir Henry, the composer and sound designer (who also plays a couple of non-speaking roles) suddenly appears in the front row of the theater with his laptop and conducts the ensemble in a delightfully downbeat choral interlude – a sort of impromptu Sprechstimme, commenting on all the trouble. And after Ivanov rejects Sasha, she returns to the stage singing “All By Myself” in yet another hilarious instance of a cross-cultural time warp. Yet this is not simply a series of postmodern techniques juxtaposed with a three-dimensional, psychological acting style. This is tangible human suffering – a thinking, comic suffering on the stage, both informing and deepening the sophisticated and silly theatricalities of the direction and design. In the best work, like this Ivanov, all these elements function to create the composition, not as oppositions but as a deep and rich theatrical tapestry – very human (psychological) and very hip (theatrical and contemporary).

A note in the program quotes from Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine:

In the solitude of airports
I breathe again I am
A privileged person My nausea
Is a privilege
Protected by torture
Barbed wire Prisons
(Photograph of the author.)
I don’t want to eat drink breathe love a woman a man a child an animal anymore. I don’t want to die anymore. I don’t want to kill anymore.
(Tearing of the author’s photograph.)
I force open my sealed flesh. I want to dwell in my veins, in the marrow of my bones, in the maze of my skill. I retreat into my entrails. I take my seat in my shit, in my blood. Somewhere bodies are torn apart so I can dwell in my shit. Somewhere bodies are opened so I can be alone with my blood. My thoughts are lesions in my brain. My brain is a scar. I want to be a machine. Arms for grabbing Legs to walk on, no pain no thoughts.

The resonance between Müller’s politically conscious, alienated self and Ivanov’s fumbling introspection – informed by Chekhov’s comic and despairing humanity – is apt.

René Pollesch’s Strepitolino I Giovanotti Disgraziati at the Prater, which is the experimental space affiliated with the Volksbühne, continues this tradition of engagement with a radical theatrical examination of Pollesch’s constant theme – identity and authenticity in the era of global capitalism. The nonsense title pairs the Italian word for Rumplestiltskin with a phrase denoting a band of street kids – petty criminals or simply victims of bad luck. With his designer Bert Neumann, Pollesch creates a total theatrical environment in the Prater. The space is turned on its axis – the traditional proscenium stage holds the sound and light boards; the audience faces a long rectangular box – TV monitors suspended above a housing block with several front doors and a huge video screen at the far end of the space.

The rectangular housing block defines the nature of the piece; it is the set for a soap opera shoot, with three actors and a crew – camera operator, script girl, and two boom operators positioned inside the house. (The TV crew is played by non-actors.) All the action inside – some of which is visible to the audience and some not – is simultaneously shot and projected on the TV monitors and the large screen. The setup consists of multiple takes of two scenes, but this frame – a kind of warmup – quickly gives way to an extended discussion of the possibilities of authentic representation, the nature of identity, role playing, and, of course, jealousy and sex. Martin Wuttke, a leading actor at the Volksbühne, plays the soap opera actor, and opposite him is Birgit Minichmayr (Sasha in Ivanov), her high-pitched rasp again in evidence. Hot blooded, scenery-chewing scenes alternate with intimate, TV-closeups within the house and broadcast on the monitors.

New York Theater Workshop has just announced an earlier piece by Pollesch, 24 Hours Are Not a Day, as part of its 2006-07 season. It will be fascinating to see how Pollesch’s radical politics and style translate to an American idiom. His philosophical soap opera clearly appealed to the young audience at the Prater. The piece also shared a sensibility with Ivanov; while the form and content of the discussion were quite different, the central concern was consistent: how does one exist within a social, political and economic community when so many powerful impulses invite retreat into a nihilistic, self-destructive isolation? The reality of this social discourse set within a highly stylized, theatrical context again spoke to the very engagement of theater with the cultural issues preoccupying Berlin at the moment – most notably the complexities surrounding the economic reunification of east and west Berlin.

Not every production that aimed at such contemporary resonance was so strong. William Forsythe, the gifted choreographer who headed the Frankfurt Ballet for many years, has recently begun incorporating more text in his dance theater. While the choreography in his Three Atmospheric Studies at the Festspielhaus remained very exciting – following a narrative of a young man hunted by the police – Forsythe, an American, included two long sections of text in English. The first was a painstaking scene between the mother of the young man and a translator, who, with increasing frustration, tried to help her translate a complaint about her son. The second text consisted of a monologue from an American soldier in Iraq, delivered in a Texas drawl by a female performer. To an American ear, the second text, in particular, seemed an obvious and predictable critique of America’s role in Iraq, without achieving either a theatrical shock or a larger resonance – quite the opposite of the abstract and sophisticated choreography going on around it. Text as an element of design is certainly a staple of postmodern theater and dance, but this text was very specific in its political message. Hence the marked contrast here, between Forsythe’s somewhat superficial language game and the experience of productions at the Volksbühne and the Prater.

Brecht’s masterpiece, Mother Courage and Her Children, certainly holds the possibility of communicating a profound contemporary social connection, especially to the current war. Unfortunately, Claus Peymann’s production at the Berliner Ensemble also failed to make this larger connection persuasively, though for very different reasons. Despite extensive cutting and transposition of scenes and songs (the splendid program book printed all the changes), the production felt caught between a conventional treatment of Brecht’s play and a truly new investigation. Though new this season, the staging felt tired and the ensemble lacked cohesion, with the all-important wagon perhaps epitomizing the unfruitful blend of tradition and innovation. A postmodern contraption with contemporary rubber wheels and a rag-tag canvas covering (which was replaced midway by new white plastic sheeting and a neon sign advertising “Courage”), this wagon seemed to hamstring, literally and thematically, the movement of the play. As the primary set element, Courage’s wagon should be a beautifully awkward object, whose very difficulty of manipulation functions as both metaphor for and fact of Brecht’s alienation effect. Watching actors and stage crew haul the wagon on and off stage, we’re helpfully (theatrically) reminded that the “magic”of theater consists of the very corporeal real-ness of its elements; the fact of the wagon as unwieldy set piece and as Courage’s sole means of making a living reminds us simultaneously of the essential difficulty of making theater and of living in a society that profits from war. But Peymann’s wagon and its movers never seemed to register the requisite consciousness of this double truth, of fictional tale and the happy difficulty of the telling.

Other choices—such as the approach to Kattrin, played by Christina Drechsler, for instance-- tended to skew the thematic tone of the production toward the sentimental. Featured prominently, Drechsler created a highly psychological portrait of a disturbed victim of both war and her mother’s overwhelming drive to survive. But the performance was not simple in Brecht’s iconic, gestural terms; the audience was encouraged to respond to Kattrin as to a mutely suffering victim of forces beyond her ken. This overly psychologized approach reduced considerably the status and stature of her final scene in which she beats her drum to warn the town of the approaching soldiers. The tiny Carmen-Maja Antoni’s Courage was full of verve and bravado, but in part because of the uneven rhythm and style of the production, her presence often seemed less essential than Kattrin’s. In contrast, Manfred Karge’s Cook generated the contradictory doubleness, the gestural opposition that defines the most accomplished Brechtian acting, and the very sort of doubleness the theater building itself embodies – its noble facade and opulent 19th century interior now housing Brecht’s “workers’ theater.”

The first thing a visitor becomes aware of on arriving in Copenhagen is the hallmark Danish sense of design. The airport, the public transportation system, the architecture, the furniture – the very society itself – all seem cleanly, exquisitely planned and carried out. The elegant theater buildings are no exception, of course – the Royal Danish Theater and Ballet, and now the controversial new opera house, designed by Henning Larsen. While the accompanying self-assurance (with a hint of smugness, perhaps) did not manifest itself in particularly strong political or socially engaged work on the stage, recent events have nonetheless begun to make themselves felt. Still reeling from the international reaction to publication last fall of the cartoons perceived as anti-Muslim, many Danes seemed primarily, and understandably, focused on the problem of immigration. The city was active with multi-cultural events and community educational fairs; and while only one new play addressed the issue head on, the effects of this controversy on an uneasy Danish population were palpable.

Badteatret, or Boat Theater, a small experimental company working out of a barge moored in a canal in the trendy downtown area, was offering a radical revision of a Danish classic, Jeppe of the Hill (1722) by Ludvig Holberg, “the Moliere of Denmark.” The play, a sort of cross between Calderon’s Life is a Dream and Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, follows the drunkard Jeppe as he disobeys his termagant wife, drinks up the shopping money, and falls asleep in a ditch. He is discovered by the Prince and his lieutenants, who carry him to the palace to play a joke on him for their own amusement. The play is very familiar to Danes, who read it in school and see it frequently produced.

Badteatret engaged a Polish director, Anna Augustynowicz, and two young Polish actors to play Jeppe and his wife. The rest of the company were Danes, with the exception of one Swedish actor. The Poles spoke Polish, the Swede Swedish, and the rest of the company Danish. The approach was a “poor theater”aesthetic; movement-based, with physical gestures very much defining or replacing psychological narrative. The production was stripped to essentials; the text radically cut (performance time was one hour); the space was a black box below decks with no set and few props; costumes were casual black garb, with elbow-length gloves the only indication of the court. While the entire company was not fully accomplished in the gestural style, the production was a genuinely imaginative take on a familiar play from the Danish canon. The Danish press responded poorly to the production, citing in particular the multi-language disorientation, but younger audiences seemed to engage with the larger idea of re-seeing this classic text. And according to the theater’s dramaturg, the production was very well received by both the public and the press in Poland, where it toured following its run in Copenhagen.

Peter Gilsfort and Benedikte Hansen in Ibsen's "Little Eyolf," directed by Jo Stromgrens at Royal Theater of Copenhagen, 2005-06. Photo: Morten AbrahamsenThe splendidly simple Royal Theater of Copenhagen is the big house in town, and its confident production of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, directed by the Norwegian Jo Stromgrens, fell squarely in the style of contemporary European postmodernism. While adopting a mostly conventional approach to the play, the design and casting choices included references to contemporary culture and psychology that telegraphed a new “concept” for Ibsen. With an edited text (Eyolf is one of Ibsen’s shortest plays), this production played a swift ninety minutes. The action moved in and out of Allmers’s house, represented by a moveable rectangular box – another of the seemingly endless re-designs of Robert Lepage’s stage houses from the eighties. (Bert Neumann’s rectangular box at the Prater was used in a similar manner but for an altogether bolder purpose.) Though beautiful as a design element, this box, like other choices here, came to seem superficial, not the result of organic or felt decisions made from a close encounter with the play itself. The most egregious example was the portrayal of Little Eyolf, who was represented by a small, motorized vehicle wrapped in zippered plastic, recalling a sort of bubble child. The vehicle motored around the set during Eyolf’s scenes; the character, though addressed, was neither seen nor heard.

Benedikte Hansen in Ibsen's "Little Eyolf," directed by Jo Stromgrens at Royal Theater Copenhagen, 2005-06. Photo: Morten AbrahamsenSimilarly, Benedikte Hansen, a leading actress in the company, emphasized Rita Allmers’s essential, gnawing sexuality; her provocative, contemporary attire highlighted her erotic and spiritual frustration. This choice shifted the emphasis of the play to the wife; her sexual confidence too easily trumped Allmers’s self-deceiving dilemmas. Again, this emphasis felt like an exercise for its own sake, in service to a concept that wasn’t fully responsive to Ibsen’s play.

Café Teatret, a basement theater underneath a bar, produced Sostrene Knudsen Raser Ud, a new play by Jens Blendstrup. Directed by Emil Hansen, one of the artistic directors of the Bad Teatret, the play attacks the isolationist, anti-immigrant tendencies of Danish culture and was a direct response to the furor in Denmark following the publication of the cartoons and the subsequent debate about immigration. The story follows two sisters who have been in hiding in a basement for years, the eventual revelation of their deceased father’s participation in a corrupt, racist regime, and their occasional sexual interludes with an unseen man outside the door. When one sister subsequently gives birth to a black baby, the racial and social identity of the hidden man is revealed. The set consists of a claustrophobic jumble of playing areas divided by wooden pillars; the older sister has frequent and noisy recourse to the toilet upstage, no doubt a result of the women’s diet, which consists solely of butter, one of Denmark’s leading exports. The playing style is broad, the satire perhaps overly pointed. In fact, more startling and theatrical than anything seen in the play was a random event that occurred outside the theater: a small boy wearing a rubber Arab mask ran though the crowd, taunting nervous audience members and café patrons alike. A truly shocking sight, this rude gesture was a disturbing reminder that all is not good design and butter in Denmark.

Indeed, Danish voters, feeling the double pinch of immigration and globalization, have elected a center-right government which is beginning to close down borders and stiffen immigration policies. It is also making cuts to the arts based on equations more familiar to theater professionals in America – requiring increased income from box office revenues, corporate support, and even private philanthropy, a concept foreign to Danish taxpayers and theater folk alike. The situation is changing in Germany as well, as the consolidation of resources following reunification threatens the vibrant connectedness of work at theaters like the Volksbühne and the Schaubühne (whose Hedda Gabler, directed by Thomas Ostermeier, comes to BAM this fall), where one can still witness the crucial inter-relatedness between governmental support and engaged, political art. Not coincidentally, this year’s art Biennale occurred in Berlin, in many non-gallery venues along one street in the east – Auguststrasse. The enormous amount of work varied in quality, of course, but the sense of place and occasion, of art creating a dialogue with the place where it is exhibited, was as strong and palpable as the contemporary fog of Ivanov. This quality of engagement is the result of the reciprocal respect that a culture grants to theater-making and other forms of artistic expression, and that art returns by its critical but resonant reflection of the society that supports it.


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