Notes From Berlin (Part I)

The Cast of "Murmel Murmel"

The Cast of “Murmel Murmel”

The next day, Sunday, we went on a bus tour of the city and were served a lovely luncheon in an artist space in Kreutzberg where we met our companions. I will address this further in Part 2. That evening we made our first trip to the Volksbuhne Berlin to see Herbert Fritsch‘s Murmel Murmel (Mumbling).

Once again I walked in knowing very little about the production other than the fact that “murmel” means “marbles” or “mumble” in German and that these were the only words in the entire play. The show starts with a military band conductor entering from the house and taking a position in the orchestra pit. Soon a sole actor enters and the conductor cues him to begin saying “murmel” over and over again in varying rhythms and intonations. He is joined by another actor and, gradually over the course of ten or twenty minutes, they are joined onstage by an actress and another until finally the entire ensemble of eleven is onstage. They are costumed in the trim suits and minidresses of early-60’s Mad Men kitsch, the set a candy colored cube of curtains moving in slapstick rhythms. The choreography is oversized and hysterical, bordering on camp. Over the course of 80 minutes or so, the ensemble use the word “murmel” as the base of a nonsense language from which to build short, comic scenes of physical theater, playing with status, incongruity and pathos in jump-cut time, like a dadaist Laugh-In.

The first act is set in this farcical Sixties world and explores language, the second act is set in a goofily abstract “performance art” environment reminiscent of the old Saturday Night Live sketch “Sprockets” meant to satirize dance or perhaps eurythmics, and the third act begins with ensemble members in a line at the foot of the stage playing melodicas (mostly poorly) and riffing on the idea of music. So I sat through an absurdist physical theater piece performed in three acts over the course of 80 minutes without an interval and with only a single nonsense word repeated over and over again. After about 20 minutes I was no longer amused and the entire project seemed like an exercise in frivolity. It was a funny sketch of an idea, a clever conceit, but certainly insufficient to sustain more than an hour of attention and interest. I left the theater cranky and disappointed.

However, the next morning Mr. Fritsch and his incisively intellectual dramaturge, Ms. Sabrina Zwach, joined us for the symposium to shed light on what we had seen. It is interesting to note how much context can change our appreciation of any given work of art.

What we didn’t know going into Murmel, Murmel the night before was that Fritsch was actually staging an unstageable “play” by the Fluxus-associated artist Dieter Roth.

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