French Performance in Berlin
I went to Berlin and saw two fantastic performances – both French. Globalism, anyone? My brief stay in the city of Brecht happened to coincide with the France en Scene Festival. Incidentally, it also coincided with roof repairs on old Bertolt’s house, so no tours, which is probably how Brecht would have preferred it anyway. What was open was his namesake restaurant, which supposedly serves Austrian dishes according to recipes left by Brecht’s second wife, the actress Helene Weigel. The food was fantastic, regardless of the dubious theatrical connection, but I digress.
As the scheduling gods were not on my side, I ended up seeing two performances in one night. Luckily, they were only a few blocks away from each other – the first (appropriately) at Hau 1, and the second (you guessed it) at Hau 2. Both theaters (as well as the additional Hau 3) are part of the historic Hebbel theater complex located in the west Kreuzberg section of Berlin. Hau 1 is a renovated, 19th-Century theater, and Hau 2 is its newer, larger sibling, complete with hipster café.
First up at Hau 1 was Anatomie Anomalie, a nouveau cirque performance by Compangnie Anomalie, which was stunning. The actrobat-dancers flipped onto and fell off of dizzyingly tall wooden boxes, which constantly shifted location, evoking an urban landscape that was at times whimsical, and at times treacherous. In a genre that can be trick-laden and inhuman, Compagnie Anomalie managed to render characters and relationships – also constantly shifting – that made each gasp-worthy tumble that much more powerful.
Just over an hour and five curtain calls later, I was running to Hau 2 to make the late show of D’Apres Nature by Philippe Quesne/Vivarium Studio. This theatrical piece, employing projected French text and German subtitles, which referred to itself as a science-fiction musical/ecological fable, put both my high-school French and college German to the test. Lucky for me, there was plenty of visual information to help me through my struggling translation. On stage was an elaborate set resembling a camp-site exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. Despite the enormity and expense of the set, however, the piece gave a distinct feeling of having been created in a basement by a group of friends worrying over the end of the world. Who knew French basements felt so much like American ones?
D’Apres Nature was a smart, heartfelt piece that took it’s time, and because it never hurried, ideas and images were cultivated, slowly growing into a performance that felt complete, yet gave the impression that it continued on and on beyond the point of applause. Even so, it was not at all dreamlike or vague. The images and ideas – friends in a basement, astronauts, environmental decline, were all quite specific without being heavy-handed. Perhaps the best example is this: there was a dog on stage for the entire performance who was just being a dog. Sometimes he left the stage to come sit in the audience. Sometimes he got a drink of water, or perked up excitedly as the performers sang. Sometimes he just laid in his dog bed for a long time. He seemed neither gimmick, nor distraction. He was just the show’s dog; he belonged there. Everything in the work was that simple and that necessary.
There’s a lot of pro-Berlin hype at the moment, most of which I’d say is deserved. There’s a ton of performance, art, and music to see, and much of it (as my Franco-skewed post attests) is international. The day after I left, a new festival was to begin, focusing on Israeli performance, and I saw lots of publicity for another upcoming festival of Brazilian work. Plus, despite it’s post-Communist, post-WWII scars, the town feels a lot like our very own Big Apple. That is, it feels like our Apple ten or fifteen years ago when it was a bit riper, juicier, and less expensive.