Closed-circuit video, Chekhov references and “The Final Countdown” by Swedish rock band Europe. Also, the complicated relationship between politics, history and private life—there were plenty of common threads at April’s Festival of International New Drama in Berlin.
For the past 15 years, the festival at the Schaubühne, one of Germany’s top theaters, has featured contemporary work from around the world. This time around, that meant shows from across North and South America and Europe, as well as one from Israel (that was a musical mystery play about Saddam Hussein, and it sold out long before I tried snagging a ticket).
I spent nine days at FIND, fueled by beer and Brezeln—the traditional fare of German theatergoers. Here’s some of what I saw.
Pink slips for politicians: Some use for your broken clay pots
Christophe Meierhans wants us to know we’re welcome to interject at any point during Some use for your broken clay pots.
“If you think what I am saying is wrong,” he says, “or you don’t agree with it, don’t hesitate to interrupt me.” Meierhans is a Swiss-born performance artist—he now calls Belgium home—with hipster-chic mutton chops, a striped orange shirt and a navy-blue blazer.
It doesn’t take more than 10 minutes for someone to make good on that offer. Meierhans, sharing the bare stage with an overhead projector—it’s giving me flashbacks to middle school—has been holding forth on his proposal for a new democratic system. Rather than electing politicians, citizens will cast votes to disqualify lawmakers they dislike. Pink slips for politicians, essentially.
One young woman isn’t having it. “This is bashing,” she says, speaking into one of three microphones distributed throughout the audience. “This is a negative way of doing politics.”
My first reaction is to laugh. She’s taking Meierhans’ cockamamie suggestion seriously? We’re at the theater. In the world of suspended disbelief. Doesn’t she know this is all make-believe?
And then, of course, I catch myself. I know the theater is more than that. And who says Meierhans is being ridiculous? What should qualify as a “serious” or “reasonable” proposal? Hell, he developed these ideas with a bunch of Belgian scholars. He’s mapped out—on slides he places on that overhead projector—how in this new system, 15 different domains of the common good would be led by “entrustees,” and how all disqualification votes would have to be accompanied by policy proposals, and how a Facebook-esque system called “Statebook” would keep track of everything. In this alternate reality, Meierhans proselytizes, politicians would be judged for their past deeds, not their campaign promises.
But then an audience member doesn’t like the term “political leader.” And how do people get into power in the first place? And if disqualification votes are cumulative, doesn’t that give old people all the power? And what happens when citizens die?
“Patience!” Meierhans blurts. “We’re getting there!”
At some point—after Meierhans talks about the role of parades in finding political successors, I think—two audience members self-disqualify. “Bye bye!” he calls after them.
I spend the 90 minutes swinging between flip dismissal, skeptical engagement and utter conviction. I marvel at the continuous audience engagement while also bemoaning how most questions come from a place of deep cynicism and distrust. I giggle, too, at the digs made at different countries, as when Meierhans explains how domains can be “deactivated.”
“If an entrustee deactivates the domain of defense,” he says, “everybody has to get a gun, like in some countries.”
“I’m sorry,” says an audience member, “but this is 50 percent Switzerland, 50 percent anarchy.”
As his presentation draws to a close, Meierhans lets us know that constitutions—published in English, German, Dutch and French—are for sale after the show. Just 5€.
This is the way the world ends: The Civil Wars
When most Americans think of historical reenactment, they imagine weekend hobbyists swinging Confederate flags and trotting across grassy knolls.
That’s not Milo Rau’s brand of reenactment. The Swiss theater artist reproduces not sensational battles but the minutiae of the courtroom, or of the radio broadcast. In the past few years, his company, the International Institute of Political Murder, has re-enacted the 1989 trial of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu and the 2012 trial of Pussy Riot. He’s staged an hour of hate-filled Rwandan radio, as well as the defense statement of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik.
Which makes The Civil Wars, at least on its face, something of a departure for the 38-year-old Rau. Though he began the project by researching what draws young European men to terrorism, the resulting piece isn’t about Parisians who decamp for Syria. Instead, it’s about the four actors onstage, who deliver interweaving monologues about their childhoods. The actors—three men, one woman; two from France, two from Belgium; all magnificent—each have complicated relationships with their fathers. They sit onstage, in an unassuming middle-class living room, and calmly recount their stories: of abuse, alcoholism, depression, a psychotic break, an untimely death. Most of the time, another actor films them, their faces projected in black and white onto a screen above them. They’re often turned to the side, but on the screen—larger-than-life—we see their faces straight-on. It’s an unnerving effect: There’s an intimacy to staring into these massive eyes, but also something distancing about it.
That tension between intimacy and distance marks the entire piece. There’s a formal chilliness to the actors’ delivery, and no dialogue between them (save a reenacted scene from The Cherry Orchard). And yet The Civil Wars has a familial quality to it, and it’s clear the actors feel warmth and affection for each other. There’s some humor, too, as when Johan Leysen, the oldest of the four, describes the addled absurdity of working with Jean-Luc Godard.
Are we supposed to draw parallels between these actors and the European-born jihadists? The Civil Wars, which is the first part of a trilogy about Europe, does open with a story about a Belgian man who leaves for the Middle East. But this question recedes into the background, and all the better. Rather than trying to force a leap from the personal to the apocalyptic, Rau asks small questions about the roles we play, about the elusiveness of memory, about life’s perpetual fragility. And he does this gently, quietly, patiently.
Always Coca-Cola: La imaginacíon del futuro
No show at FIND pushed buttons quite like La imaginacíon del futuro, by Chilean company Teatro La Re-sentida. The piece, which sends up myths of Salvador Allende as a left-wing savior, features one of the more aggressive moments of audience interaction I’ve ever seen. I won’t detail the entire encounter here, but it included entreaties for money, some close-range nudity and a lunge at an audience member’s crotch. Take this out of the theater and someone would be filing a harassment complaint.
Afterwards, I heard some people dismiss it as an empty shock tactic, a desperate but meaningless attempt by the young performers to prove how edgy and daring and self-aware they are. But back up for a second. Here’s a sizable ensemble of Chileans, all born after Pinochet’s 1973 military coup. Reared in an atmosphere of political numbness, for the past few years they’ve been grappling with renewed unrest: not only the well-publicized student protests that started in 2011, but also outcries about inequities across Chilean society and about the inertia of consensus politics. “People see Chile as a nice democratic postcard to the world, but the country is deeply divided and unequal,” director Marco Layera said in a post-show talkback.
So they’re angry. And that’s clear. La imaginacíon begins with the real text of the speech Allende delivered right before the military charged his palace, right before Allende killed himself. Here, the frantic Diet Coke-fueled ministers aren’t happy with the somber presentation. We need something cooler! Sillier! He must appeal to the people! So they rush about, ignoring the fact that Allende has crawled onto the floor and fallen asleep, trying out a red backdrop, and debating whether the president should appear in front of a socioeconomically diverse crowd, or maybe it’d be better if he wears a white tracksuit while standing with a couple of rich blond kids on a golf course? (In real life, it was a radio address.) It’s all willfully absurd, a clear jab at the ridiculousness of manicuring a political image while your country falls apart around you. (The digs at Allende as a powerless dunce—he never speaks for himself, always whispering to one of his ministers like a shy child to his mother—nearly brought French audiences to blows last year.)
Teatro La Re-sentida digs into a massive theatrical toolbox: we get stage fights, a boy band-esque dance number, a silly beach party routine, some heart-tugging melodrama. The physical exertion is impressive. There’s one man in a monkey suit. Another wears metallic spandex: he’s a stray bullet, spraying water into the audience. And then, a boy steps out of a wooden box. This is 12-year-old Roberto, we’re told. His mother is a cleaning woman and his father is in jail—and we’re asked to donate 20€ apiece to improve his chances in life.
Where things spiral next is polemical, but also unflaggingly energetic—and often hilarious. Where do we go from here? La imaginacíon doesn’t give an answer, or really any proposals. The disillusionment is immense, but so is the dynamism, and that gives reason to hope.
Don’t you know that you’re toxic: Spam
Spam, written and performed by Argentine dynamo Rafael Spregelburd—with significant musical help by the mononymous Zypce—is a deep dive into your least-favorite email folder. For an uninterrupted two hours, Spregelburd traces the confusion of a man who’s woken up in Malta with amnesia and must piece together his true identity. It’s a sprawling, free-associative journey: penis enlargement pills, pleas for help from Malaysia, foul-mouthed baby dolls, the Costa Concordia wreck, PayPal, James Bond, Caravaggio, the Great Pacific garbage patch.
There’s no question that Spregulburd has extraordinary stage presence and smarts, whether describing the linguistic complexity of an extinct Semitic language or singing “Final Countdown.” And Zypce’s sound design is surprising and delightful: He plunges microphones into fish tanks and uses a leaf blower to great effect. Yet the show smothers its audience. Deliberately, yes, but it’s hard not to wish Spregelburd had been more willing to hit “delete.”
A vase only breaks once: Nadia/Kabul/Barcelona
Nadia Ghulam has an astonishing story. Ghulam was raised in Afghanistan, and when she was 8, her home was bombed. Her brother was killed, and Ghulam was severely injured. But she eventually emerged from a coma, and would go on to spend much of her adolescence passing herself off as her brother. At 22, with the help of an NGO, she traveled to Barcelona to have her injuries treated, and she’s lived there since.
Ghulam’s experiences of living as a boy in Afghanistan—a deception that allowed her access to education and employment—and learning how to live as a woman in Spain should make for rich theater. And this production, a collaboration between Ghulam and Catalonian theater group La Conquesta del Pol Sud, does have some lovely moments. Ghulam provides a first-person account of her life: She recalls smoking weed, reciting poetry and singing songs—the Taliban allowed no musical instruments—with her male co-workers. She recounts convincing an employer she knew how to dig a well. She describes how she saw a woman in Barcelona walking by herself and followed her to see if she’d be OK. Director Carles F. Guia and videographer Eugenio Szwarcer are onstage for most of the show, filming Ghulam in closed-circuit video or simply listening.
It’s all very well-meaning, but it also tends toward platitudes. “Freedom is most precious treasure in the world,” Ghulam says. At another point, she zips from a line about the isolating experience of war to a quick thought about the importance of education to a quote from Balzac. There’s some good stuff here, and the video footage of contemporary Afghanistan—lush green fields, lively markets—is a nice contrast to the images we usually see out of the Middle East. Give it some specificity, and it’ll have life.
Burnout is very cool: Stück Plastik
FIND included one Schaubühne world premiere, a satire written and directed by resident playwright Marius von Mayenburg. A claws-out domestic comedy in the style of Yasmina Reza, Stück Plastik (“A Piece of Plastic”) centers on an upper-middle-class couple in Prenzlauer Berg—Berlin’s Park Slope. Their sex life is unsatisfying, their son is hitting puberty, and then there’s the whole awkward matter of conversing with the new cleaning lady. There are deeper moral questions here, but amid all the flinging of spaghetti and bouillabaisse—the sterile white set essentially becomes the canvas for an action painting—it’s easy to lose sight of them.
Mayenburg gives us types: insecure surgeon Michael (Robert Beyer), convinced he needs to travel to Africa to find purpose; unsatisfied wife Ulrike (Marie Burchard), who once knit doilies with images of 9/11 and now works as an artist’s assistant; and the bloviating, self-important artiste Haulupa (Sebastian Schwarz), who changes his facial hair every scene and decides the couple’s new cleaning woman (Jenny König, who has one mean singing voice) should be the center of his newest masterwork. Hence the airborne spaghetti and bouillabaisse, and the dirt-spraying machine—kind of a reverse vacuum cleaner—because the maid needs a real mess to mop up, doesn’t she?
The performances are excellent, the dialogue can be zingy, and some moments are genuinely, corrosively funny, as when Ulrike gives the world’s most labored explanation of why you absolutely cannot leave money lying around when you employ domestic help. Yet the neatness of the craft works against Stück Plastik. The stage might be a semolina- and stew-covered wreck by the time things end, but our hands feel all too clean.
Drunk in Düsseldorf: The Apple Family Plays
It doesn’t make much sense to weigh in on Richard Nelson’s four-play series here—the playwright/director was in Berlin to present the full cycle, with most of the original Public Theater cast—but there was one wonderful moment worth noting.
In the fourth play, Regular Singing, Jane (Sally Murphy) details how Washington Crossing the Delaware—that iconically American image—was actually painted by a German, Emanuel Leutze. And in Düsseldorf, no less, with American models Leutze recruited off the street. In Jane’s telling, Leutze plied them with beer and liquor.
And oh, did the Berlin audience roar at the thought of eager Yanks piling into an artist’s atelier to get sauced for the sake of art. It seems the times never change.