Why Returning to Reims works: The sequence and method of a political play

Photo by Teddy Wolff

It will come as no surprise that there is no single strategy theater makers exercise to realize political theater. Artist have to consider epoch, political landscape, theater landscape. There are too many great political plays to ever read all of them, and there’s probably twice as many “eh” political plays that just don’t work, for various reasons. In a political play that does work, there tends to be the delivery of impact, of resonance, something that sticks with you and matters a little bit more.

Political theater tends to be challenging; sometimes I wish it had a name all for itself, to distinguish itself from, well, non-political theater. The real distinction, though, is not necessarily in production or content but in spectator’s expectations when experiencing a political piece of work. We engulf and tangle with a political idea in a different way than how we listen and respond to a play. The great theater theorists from history — from Augusto Boal to Vaclav Havel to even, I’d say, playwright Lillian Hellman — have implicitly acknowledged this.

For a piece of political theater to really work, it takes a thoughtful and sophisticated guide to the ideas, political and theatrical, and deft hands guide us through. Which brings me to Returning to Reims (at St. Ann’s Warehouse through February 25th, tickets $46), a political play that is more than capable at providing its spectators with impact and resonance.

The political message of Returning to Reims is that the left has abandoned the working class. The varying resplendent strategies the play employs to reach its spectators run the gamut, and they move in a purposeful sequence to prepare the house for the political message.

First, in the production, one of the performers reads from a political memoir – for pretty much the first half of the show. Along on that ride: the three characters are making a political documentary, which is also part of the conceit of that first half of the show. Then they dive into the fact that they are literally in a play with characters and dynamics that address political ideas. Then they perform sick political hip hop. And finally, most effectively, they make the work personal and talk about the political life and family of one of the performers. These elements each work individually and in tandem to make this political work impactful.

Director Thomas Ostermeier and his theater, the Schaubuhne, produce some of the most framed though formally experimental theater in the world. He excavates remarkably memorable and telling ideas from the text — I once heard him say his is the last theater in Germany that still begins with the text — and abstracts it, physicalizes it. These ideas are couched in performance spaces that range from lean and specific to dangling and dense, but he always contains them, and the works speak in harmony. In Returning to Reims, Ostermeier’s vigorous imagination is settled, specialized even, and put to great effect.

This is not throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks; this is a map to fulfill effect, to found the concepts of the political message within the art so when the political message is stated clearly it is not just heard, but felt, absorbed, and maybe turned into action.

First and foremost, there is no pretending here. Essentially an a priori, the German theater both acknowledges the house and meaningfully plays with it, and for our consideration it discloses that the creative team absolutely knew the politics of the spectators at St. Ann’s, and that they would agree with their arguments. Nina Hoss, the performer that becomes the play’s key empathetic figure, says she doesn’t want their political documentary to have one of those “classic didactic endings.” Lessons, at least just a lesson, the work is suggesting, aren’t so effective, and not affecting.

Hoss narrates the memoir/documentary in a manner reminscent to Spalding Gray, glass of water at her right hand, hushed tones moving within shades of vacancy. She reads from the French philosopher Didier Eribon’s memoir, titled “Returning to Reims,” as scenes from political and personal history color and emphasize what we hear. She is priming the people: we are no longer a house here to see a play, but a house here to hear what essentially amounts to a political and philosophical lecture. We’re all willing to do it, and they take so much time because it takes awhile to shift how we’re feeling. Now we are ready to internalize and listen in different ways.

I’m sure we’ve all seen this maneuver employed to some degree on different occasions. My favorite is the first act of Dead Centre’s absolutely magnetic and mysterious work Lippy, and company co-Artist Director Bush Moukarzel also performs in Returning to Reims. He plays the films director with his own political agenda. At the turn of the play, he and Hoss — who, we should note, have character names: Paul and Katy — begin debating the direction of the film.

The debate itself is interesting, essentially about the contentious decisions and the dynamics of the future of the Left. The play fastens us to Katy’s side of the argument: Paul is flippant, pretentious, kind of a poor listener. But, as we’ve established, the content of an argument does none of the heavy lifting of swaying hearts. It is significant that the house is now incorporated into the discussion: the lights have come up and we are all together in this room. Also, both Paul and Katy glance to the house when driving home a debate point, just in case some of the more timid amongst us still don’t feel involved.

What’s more significant, though, is that the other studio attendee, Toni, is nervously pacing through their discussion. Hoss and Moukarzel are both white Europeans, the actor playing Toni, named Ali Gadema, is not. Katy and Paul both have an air of a professional artist, Toni one of a street artist. Eventually, he intervenes in their discussion — I don’t have the text, but it’s something along the lines of “Jesus mate, time is money, we can’t keep chatting away about ideas when I’ve got kids to feed at home.” Soon after, the scene ends.

The political message of the play is that the Left has abandoned the working class and are talking amongst themselves rather than addressing real needs. This dynamic is recreated between not just the three characters, but all of us, as we were part of that conversation while Toni was waiting to get on with his life. By seamlessly sliding this dynamic into the play, the political equivalent that we spent the last hour nodding along with feels more real, and we approach empathy.

So the play has primed us to listen, then snuck in an access to empathy. But then, as if to tip his hat to how academic this play has seemed, we get a little concert. Ali Gadema is a poet and spoken word educator across Europe, and he totally spits. Two emphatic quick political rhymes about the struggles of the working class not only break up the rhythm and allow us to relax a little into our seats — alert alert — but drive home the political struggle in the lexicon of marginalized communities. We spend the first hour thinking about the marginalized working class as if we are in a lecture hall, now, we get a sense of the struggle in a language from the class itself. With both perspectives, we are affected and move in greater mass.

Returning to Reims has repositioned the audience so they are in a receiving state more amenable to a political message. The entire production has, rather precisely, created a dynamic so the final political ends may drive home.

At the very beginning of the play, Hoss mentions, really offhand, that her father had recently passed away. Now, as the play is concluding (German theater doesn’t mind if you know when the play is ending), Moukarzel asks Hoss to tell her family story for the camera. We are still teasing the imagined circumstance of the documentary, but the detail of her history, her reference to its similarities to Eribon’s history, and all of her excellent family photos and videos that follow strongly suggest we are dealing with the performer, not her character. As we are: Nina Hoss’ father is Willi Hoss, one of the founder’s of the German Green Party (that still exists today, I believe was nearly part of the recently thwarted German Parliament, though the play suggest the party now stands for different ideals).

We see Willi Hoss, and often Nina beside him, really doing it. Bringing water pipes to the Amazon. Helping communities organize. Over the last two hours, Nina Hoss has become a character we can believe in and have faith in — she spoke for a solid hour, debated an annoying dude for nearly another, and is a talented performer, how could we not? Now, as we see her as more than talk, really making action happen, we have a greater impetus to act ourselves, a classic case of motivated by someone you admire. At the very least, there’s a real pull against us at dinner after the show: we may want to just focus on our wine and chicken, but the circumstances of the performance are imposing on our unconscious, fighting for our attention.

There are a lot of political plays out there, and I’m not here to tell you any of them are trash, far from it. But I will challenge you to wonder if the play is pulling ideas out into the ether — a fine pursuit in and of itself — or if it’s really creating impact. And by impact, I mean: if can’t stop gnawing on it, it’s impactful, if it changes how you feel, changes how you may think, it’s impactful. Returning to Reims will impact you, will stay with you; it’s designed to do so, and does so well.

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