The Marriage of Maria Braun at BAM, Edgewise at Walkerspace

Monday night we saw Eliza Clark’s Edgewise, produced by the PlayCo. and Page 73 at Walkerspace and Wednesday night took us to BAM for The Marriage of Maria Braun, quite the study in contrasts.

The Marriage of Maria Braun is German director Thomas Ostermeier’s adaptation of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder film. I haven’t seen the Fassbinder film but Ostermeier’s production is a densely layered exploration of one desperate woman’s fight for survival in post-WWII Germany. Simultaneously an exploration of the post-war landscape and a gripping drama of cunning, sex and manipulation, Ostermeier weaves together a story that resonates emotionally and as allegory.

The show opens with a slide show of Hitler-era images and with two male cast members reading “Love Letters to Hitler” – it is jarring and disturbing, while at the same time laying the psychological groundwork for the piece. Maria and her husband Herrmann are married as bombs fall on the city, and he is sent to Russia. When Maria hears that her husband is dead she takes up with an American G.I. she meets as a hostess in a bar. Herrmann is not dead and returns to find Maria in flagrante delicto with her new, black, paramour. In a fit of passion Maria kills the G.I. and Herrmann confesses to the murder to spare her jail time. While Herrmann is serving his time, Maria finds work with a French textile manufacturer – she is working to make money to buy a house and build a home for when Herrmann returns. But soon she has started an affair with the much-older textile manufacturer. The textile manufacturer finds out about her husband and makes a deal with Herrmann that upon his release from prison he will go away until the textile manufacturer dies. In compensation, the textile manufacturer leaves half of his estate to Herrmann and half to Maria – who now must live with the knowledge the Herrmann, essentially, sold her love.

It is a bleak, fraught story which captures the desperation of a country destroyed by war and the complications of returning to normalcy after the Nazi era. Brigitte Hobmeier is radiant as Maria and the ensemble of men (Jean-Pierre Cornu, Hans Kremer, Bernd Moss and Steven Scharf) who play all the other parts (male and female) are agile actors, bringing a diverse cast of characters to life. Using simple props and costume changes the ensemble moves fluidly from scene to scene and character to character. Although billed as “avant-garde” there really is very little avant-garde about the piece – it is extremely accessible. The use of video projections, microphones for declaimed dialogue, cross-gender casting and the simple, clean design of the set are all familiar at this point, though they are artfully and elegantly executed.

I was surprised to find myself feeling sympathy for such a manipulative and ruthless heroine. But Ostermeier’s production draws you in to her world and Hobmeier’s mix of girlish enthusiasm and womanly sexuality makes her Maria captivating. Even at her most manipulative we can always see this romantic girl underneath – which makes her both fascinating and dangerous. And with the videos and slides projected onto the back wall, Ostermeier reveals what is going on in the rest of Germany at the time, and we realize that Maria is, in some ways, Germany. Powerful stuff.

As I said, I haven’t seen the Fassbinder film, nor had I seen Ostermeier’s previous engagements at BAM, so it is hard for me to make comparisons to either. Taken on its own then, I think The Marriage of Maria Braun is an excellent example of contemporary director-driven theater. Like Ivo van Hove, it is stripped and lean, focusing on the brutal emotional arc of the story and using minimal theatrics to convey enormous significance.

Have you seen it?? What did you think?

*****

Eliza Clark’s Edgewise, currently playing at Walkerspace in Tribeca, stands in stark contrast to the subtlety, complexity and simplicity of The Marriage of Maria Braun. Clark’s play is set in New Jersey in the not-too-distant future where war is a constant presence. Three hapless teenagers working in a burger joint are drawn into the war when a bloodied and mysterious stranger stumbles into their workplace. Is he one of the rebels? Is he a soldier? Is he dangerous? Who cares?

Written like a none-too-subtle Made-For-TV movie, Edgewise is, I suppose, a vaguely sinister exploration of the power dynamics in a small group of people and how fear can change us from prey to predator. Or something like that. Mostly it is just disappointingly bland and inconsequential.

Sometimes I get frustrated by the failings of experimental theater and I think to myself, “I wish I could just see a regular old play with, like, dialogue and characters and stuff”. And then I see a show like Edgewise and I’m reminded why I don’t go to more regular plays. The dialogue, the characters, the predictability, the familiarity, the attempts to gin up suspense and drama when there is inherently very little there. So unchallenging and unsatisfying.

To be honest I was really surprised because PlayCo. has such a great track record of presenting challenging new work and Edgewise was just so rote and familiar. You might want to just wait for it to come out on DVD.

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