A Dialogue / Response to ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant’

Photo credit: Bryce Cutler
Pictured: Caroline Gombé and Betsey Brown

Dan O’Neil & Joshua William Gelb both attended The Third Space’s production of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant on different nights.  

Dan: I think we should do a dialogue.  This can be the beginning.

Josh: Yes. We can definitely do a dialogue. Though I wish I was more educated about the original Fassbinder movie. I saw it with Bart who had a lot more knowledge about Fassbinder’s back catalogue which made me wish I was as knowledgeable when seeing the show.

When did you go? Was the chameleon alive? It looked pretty dead when I saw it.

Editor’s Note: Bart is a designer Josh & Dan both know.  The chameleon was actually a bearded dragon, and it was not dead, although it did not move at all during the performance Dan watched.  More on this later.

Dan: I also feel under-educated, but maybe that’s a good place to start.  Who else better to ask than a director like yourself, with regard to what one might describe as a director-driven project – that is to say, an existing play, not often done, that serves as an origin or artifact of something else.  How much, if at all, is it in the director’s best interests to build a frame around this type of project?

Josh: In this case I require less of the director in terms of giving the audience authorial context (in this case Fassbinder) for the work. As soon as I got home I looked up clips from the movie on YouTube and was immediately able to engage with the production on that level. For instance I was absolutely struck by that final monologue by Marlene (played by Alex Spieth) which seemed to shatter the fourth wall with a startlingly contemporary read of one of the characters and I had to find out if a similar moment was in the movie (spoiler: it isn’t). So I guess for me when a theater director is adapting the work of a filmmaker, however obscure the work may be, since the original is so readily available it can in fact extend the conversation beyond the performance. The audience is encouraged to find the movie and watch for themselves to parse both directors’ choices. I think I’d feel differently if this piece only existed as a play though (from what I’ve heard, Fassbinder wrote a play version first).

Editor’s Note: Correct. Taking place entirely in her spacious bedroom, a fashion designer (Petra Von Kant, played by Caroline Gombé) receives various visitors – all females.  Silently standing by is her faithful and abused assistant (whom she treats like a servant or slave), Marlene, whose anguish slowly becomes more evident throughout the play. Soon, Petra falls in love with a younger woman, a friend of her cousin, named Karin.  Karin moves in.  Karin abuses Petra’s love, cheats on her, and eventually leaves to rejoin her husband.  Many gin & tonics are consumed.  A desolute drunken birthday party follows, with Petra hysterically smashing most of the offerings, as her cousin, mother, and daughter witness the hysteria.  The lizard (referenced throughout this article) is one of the gifts presented.  Marlene, still silent, cleans up the mess.  Karin calls on the telephone.  Petra declines to see her, and instead tells Marlene that “things are going to be different now.”  

Dan: The other question there, is, I suppose – how would you even do it (provide authorial context)?  Because the play is the play.  I had a chance to chat with Benjamin Viertel a bit afterward, who directed the piece, and he confirmed that Fassbinder had written the play before getting rejected for drama school, and when he was later accepted into film school he adapted it into the film that it now exists, making significant changes along the way.  So in a certain sense, it’s an archive, a glimpse into a creative mind somewhere mid-evolution.  That said, the rawness of the work does open it up to dramaturgical… confusion?  I was aware that I wasn’t watching a play written in the past few decades, for instance.  I made allowances for that.  Those allowances take some energy, and I was expending that energy at the same time as I was looking for a way into the piece.  My biggest way in, as you referenced, was through Alex Spieth’s character (Marlene).  How did – if it did – your way of watching shift throughout the experience?

Josh: Do you really think this experience you’re talking about is different from seeing any lesser known play? I saw Theater for a New Audience’s Skin of Our Teeth the other week, and spent a long time questioning if the production was taking meta-theatrical liberties with the script (spoiler: it wasn’t); which makes me wonder if that “expending of energy” is ultimately inevitable when dealing with work outside of the standard cannon. Or are you particularly talking about Fassbinder as a writer/director film auteur whose vision is inextricable from the work?

Anyway, to actually answer your question I suppose my way into the show lay in tracking their approach to the performance of extreme emotionality, which their marketing materials depicted so evocatively in those close-up portraits of each character weeping grotesquely. How much of Petra’s anguish were we meant to empathize with verses how much was an exercise in camp?

Dan: I didn’t empathize much with Petra’s anguish.  But at the same time, it felt overly simplistic to write it off as camp.  It felt extreme, uncomfortable, yet a little out of reach to me.

A side question – to what degree do we carry the weight of our craft (director, writer, actor, etc.) into a performance with us?  I tend, if it’s a new play, to make an attempt to consider, first and foremost, what the writer is doing.  Then I consider, if extractable, what the director is doing, and the actors, design, etc.  I suspect that I watch in this “order” because I identify most strongly as a writer.  (Never mind that a lot of the work that I know we both like is more hybrid in form, with less clearly identified borderlines between writer, director, actor – that could be its own article.)  

But so – to the point above – I felt like I placed Viertel’s vision, in this version of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, ahead of the vision of Fassbinder’s play, or even the film – and so what I didn’t connect to within the play itself I consciously overrode with the expectation that the point wasn’t the play itself, but this particular treatment of the play (as material, as something to play against, even).  I suppose you’re right in that we generally do this with any work that isn’t a new play or in the cannon.  Which is kind of weird?  

And yes.  The posters beautifully captured the emotional pinnacle that each character would eventually reach, which also colored by expectations as to where I felt this particular ride would end up.  The cake exploding against a wall, and then Marlene’s reaction to it remains one of the great unforgettable images of the production in my mind.  Images that stood out for you?

Josh: It’s funny that you bring up the concept of identification in the context of this production (I correspondingly tend to view a piece first through the lens of the director, naturally). I feel like the choices surrounding the almost always silent Marlene easily made her the most accessible of the characters. And yet I question whether she was actually accessible or merely the most identifiable, in the sense that we, as similarly emerging artists, can only make sense of Petra’s overwrought downfall through the lens of what was effectively her intern. That final monologue in which Marlene finally expressed her struggle in the shadow of her more famous employer, ultimately dispensing with the character entirely to express the extent to which the actress herself has struggled, was the moment where I finally connected to the material and the pronounced emotional stylization that preceded it. This divergence from the original, in which Marlene simply abandons her beloved abuser Petra, also seemed like the most clear identification with the material on the part of the creators.

Beyond this moment, I was frequently hypnotized by Bryce Cutler’s slowly pulsating fluorescents that underscored the scenes. Betsy Brown (playing Karin) as the object of Petra’s desire, manically leaping up and down on the couch as her lover/sugar-momma wept also sticks out in my mind. And of course that live chameleon whose pink terrarium heat-lamp was identical to the house-lights, leaving me to question the philosophical implications of that repetition: Am I the chameleon? Is the chameleon me?

It occurs to me that there’s something strange about you and I going on about a work that is so purposefully absent of men. And yet, despite passing the Bechdel test with flying colors, I actually have trouble considering this a feminist play. Not to put too much of a political read on it, but there was something downright malicious about the portrayal of women here, frequently offering up both seductress and hysteric types. Perhaps this is why I mentioned camp earlier. Because for me viewing the over-the-top performances through the lens of camp allowed me to see the piece as a reclamation of/commentary on these very tropes.

Okay, maybe I’m getting in a little too deep. If you’d rather not get into this, feel free to end this part with the chameleon joke.

Dan: My feeling is that – although I think we ought to, and will, tread lightly – given that it was something we both noticed, it’s appropriate for us to dig a little deeper into this particular representation of female bodies on stage.  I also found tension between what was happening on stage (essentially a three-woman love triangle with no one to root for, except perhaps the aforementioned Marlene – but we don’t really want her to end up with Petra, do we?) and what was happening outside of the play, 45 years after it was written, in the real world.  I can’t speak for all audiences, but I certainly believe that artists and academics come to the theater armed with a hyper-awareness of identification politics, and this play certainly raises flags.  

I’m not even sure it does pass the Bechdel test, because one (important) component of that test is that there are only women on stage, talking about something other than men.  In Fassbinder’s play, we get an opening scene between Petra and her friend Sidonie von Grasenabb, in which almost the only thing they talk about is Petra’s recent divorce from her husband.  Then Karin, the soon-to-be ravenous object of Petra’s desire (and modeling protege) appears in Petra’s lair, upon invitation.  There is a good amount of small talk, but the crux of the scene lies in Karin’s description of her father, and later Petra’s reminiscence about a song that reminds her of her first husband.  Then we move onto a third scene, in which – one extrapolates – Karin has moved in with Petra, and tortures her with a story about sleeping with “a big black man with a big black cock.”  After which, each following scene is dominated by hysterical temper tantrums, crying, screaming, etc.  

But the play is the play.  Whether or not highlighting unruly behavior felt groundbreaking/feminist/exciting 45 years ago, it lands differently in 2017, and in our reflection on it.  

But the play is not the play, because this is a new version, a contemporary take, a knowing staging of problematic material.  The play is the problem.  This production, while not offering any clear-cut solution, underlines this problem, I believe, by shifting the focus more directly to the servant character Marlene, therefore giving us a lens to view the play’s worldview, and daring us to immerse ourselves in it while simultaneously trying to escape unscathed.  This invitation is a complex one.  I like your solution, which is to change the lens to “camp,” therefore rendering the material more viewable.  But I also want to watch with Marlene, who I don’t think sees it as camp – her interior experience must be to see these gestures, especially of destruction of the physical items onstage (cake, bottles, etc) as meaningful acts of violence directed at her, and her response to them eventually transcends any single way of watching.  

I’m sort of sick of the universal dramaturgical question, “Why This Play Now?”  I think I’d be more amenable to “How this play now?”  That seems to be the question that Third Space’s production bangs up against, and eventually sheds some light upon.

Josh: There’s certainly an insidious double standard when it comes to the portrayal of women on stage that keeps complicating my experience here. I can think of dozens of plays in which men behave badly to little academic scrutiny, but have one female character throw a cake against a wall and suddenly we’re discussing representation. Yes, I’m oversimplifying. But I do appreciate your delineation between the problems of the play and the intentions of the production, which certainly seems to be provoking us deliberately into waging this dialogue.

In the end, however, I think Third Space is more interested in a dialogue about the exploitation of young artists. That evocative final monologue rebuffs the neatness of the film’s ending, forcing us to ask: Will Marlene (like her filmic precursor) ever escape this silk-draped melodrama to make work of her own or will she remain with Petra, ever the subservient tool of Von Kant’s fashion empire? Or more broadly: to what extent does our own artistic practice capitalize on the misuse of others?

Visit Third Space for more information on the production and company.
Go to Josh’s website for more info on his body of work.

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