Notes From Berlin (Part I)

The cast of "Odipus Stadt" running up the half pipe.

The cast of “Odipus Stadt” running up the half pipe.

Finally we ended up at The Deutsches Theater Berlin for Stephan Kimmig’s Ödipus Stadt. If Constanze Becker was the center of Thalheimer’s Medea, then Susanne Wolff was the vital, beating heart of Kimmig’s Ödipus Stadt. The production linked Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone with Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes and some selections from Euripides to create a chronological epic of the downfall of Thebes. The resulting story was, surprisingly, a telling of Creon’s reluctant rise to power and subsequent fall, emerging from Oedipus’ shadow only to be crushed by the effort of purging Thebes of Oedipus’ tainted legacy. It seemed to have special resonance given the controversy around the burial of Tamerlan Tsarvaev occurring back home.

Susanne Wolff as Kreon in "Odipus Stadt"

Susanne Wolff as Kreon in “Odipus Stadt”

In Kimmig’s production Creon is played by the charismatic Susanne Wolff, her lean, defined musculature swathed in black, her raven tresses slicked severely back, while the other actors are dressed in neutral beiges and earth tones, be-skirted regardless of gender, differentiated only by small accents of costume and accessories. The set was reminiscent of a skateboarder’s half pipe as designed by Ikea – blonde wood on an incline, curving up the back wall of a spare, white stage.

By both talent and design Wolff offers an extraordinary performance, bringing the character of Creon into previously unseen clarity. Even as Oedipus proceeds to set his own tragic fate in motion, Creon is present, the embodiment of the Guardian of The State. The King is a Thing, but the State existed before and will exist after. We see Creon forced by circumstances (and then by desire) to move from civil servant to King, and the toll his unleashed ambition takes on his conscience and sense of moral certainty.

Wolff had two particularly striking moments as Creon in Ödipus Stadt: first when alone, trying on the crown and imagining himself King. Like Prince Hal at Henry IV’s bedside, Creon is weighing both the opportunity and the burden of being King. Wolff, a deft and agile performer, tries on dispositions, demeanors and tones in rapid fire sequence creating a scene that is at once humorous and fraught. Her second extraordinary display of masterful acting was a slow procession across stage bearing the dead body of Creon’s son Haemon. This moment brilliantly complicates Wolff’s heretofore gender-neutral presentation of Creon, she is at once masculine guardian of order in the polis and mother bereft at the loss of her only and much-loved son.

These sorts of complications and nuances run throughout the production and once again, my pre-show trepidation turned to engagement and admiration as the familiar characters of Ödipus Stadt set out inexorably on their tragic journey, no less horrible for being familiar.

After Kimmig’s Ödipus Stadt I began to appreciate the German model. While it is not the only model for producing theater of scale, it has its advantages. There have been numerous times over the years in NYC where I have seen a director’s original work and then seen them take on a classic only to be more impressed and satisfied with their work on the classic. There seems to be something about approaching the well-known and familiar that is liberating, that allows the director to focus more purely on creating the gestalt of the play without getting distracted by irrelevancies, getting mired in debates with living playwrights or arguments with self-important actors. The conceptual structure of Director’s theater and its associated aesthetic conditions and frameworks support a level of investigation and ambition that is unlikely to be supported in any other context.

That being said, the system is not without its flaws. Wednesday morning the dramaturge for Ödipus Stadt, Mr. John von Düffel, arrived at our symposium to answer our questions. Most of the feedback was positive, but one of our colleagues from Greece pointed out that it was dramaturgically unsound to mix Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides together in one presentation without at least calling attention to it in some way. Each writer represents a different moment in Athenian democracy; their styles, themes and resonance were distinctly different than each other.

This raises more questions than can be addressed here, both in terms of this specific production and the larger issues about the aesthetic assumptions of German State Theater. The clarity and stability of the structures supporting the State Theater system allow directors to undertake ambitious projects that one might not imagine realizing elsewhere. At the same time, the thinking that undergirds this structure reinforces an adherence to order, a rigidity of process and fixity of construct that resists innovation. To the outside observer the State Theater system contains a pervasive but unrecognized blindness to the nuances of cultural difference and all that implies, thus inhibiting a rigorous interrogation of context. But more on that in the next essay.

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