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Brecht and Weill's "Dreigroschenoper," directed by Johanna Schall at the Gorki Theater, Berlin
Dynastic Reflections
By Jonathan Kalb


Die Dreigroschenoper
By Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Maxim Gorki Theater

Die Wildente
By Henrik Ibsen
Berliner Ensemble

By Luk and Peter Perceval (After Racine)
Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz


"Kings are not born: they are made by artificial hallucination," wrote Bernard Shaw. He might have added that the public needs this hallucination. If government won't provide royalty, we invent it ourselves in the arena of show business. Show-biz dynasties are especially useful in the consumerist era because they foster endlessly diverting pseudo-debates about privileged position versus real ability, and they generate vital feelings of communal connection to temper those lonely acts of purchasing tickets, videos and CDs. Then of course there's the benefit to the stars: where would Sophia Coppola, Liza Minelli, Michael Douglas and hundreds of others be today without the public fascination with dynastic continuance?

In Germany, as I was poignantly reminded during a recent trip to Berlin, the situation is exactly the same with one interesting twist: show-biz dynasties flourish there in an environment where theater is taken much more seriously than in America. Thus, talent aside, the perception of legitimate inheritance depends not only on razzle-dazzle and clever PR but also on the demonstration of at least a few intellectual bona fides. As in America, German stars tend to work in all media, but the average German fan possesses a comparatively shocking store of knowledge about drama--theatrical connoisseurship there is like sports connoisseurship in America. Thespian claimants therefore face different scrutiny on the path to coronation.

Johanna Schall's production of Brecht and Weill's Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera) at the Gorki Theater is a fascinating case study. Schall is the granddaughter of Brecht and the daughter of Barbara Brecht-Schall, who tightly controls the rights to her father's plays in Germany and who wielded extraordinary control over the Berliner Ensemble during the last two decades of the GDR. Rumor has it that Johanna Schall--a good actress who switched to full-time directing in the mid 1990s--has been positioning herself to take over leadership of the BE after Claus Peymann, the current Intendant, leaves. In recent years she has smartly distanced herself from her family, earning wide critical respect for directing work in Rostock and elsewhere. Most savvy observers assume that performance rights for Threepenny (a box office plum for any theater) were given to the Gorki so that Schall could mount a high-profile Berlin tryout for the job she really wants. This time it would be hard to imagine her sticking closer to her family.

The costume designer is her sister, Jenny Schall. The role of Macheath is played by Pierre Besson, son of the famous Swiss director Benno Besson, who led the East Berlin Volksbühne during the 1970s. In the mid 1950s, Benno Besson had another child with the Berliner Ensemble actress Sabine Thalbach (the original Katrin in Mother Courage), Katharina Thalbach, who after her mother's death at age 34 (from a thrombosis) became a sort of house orphan at the BE under Helene Weigel's tutelage. In the Gorki Threepenny, Katharina's granddaughter, Nelly Thalbach, who looks about five, plays "Die kleine Polly." Papa Peachum (played by Jörg Schüttauf), profiteer of pauperism, sings the cynical opening "Moritat" number to his sleepy little girl like a reassuring bedtime story. This child role is Schall's invention; she thus embellishes the play's theme of venal power relations with a self-conscious reference to her own circle. She also quickly advertises her freedom to make the sort of scriptural changes notoriously forbidden to all other directors.

If this production is indeed a tryout for the politically sensitive BE job, however, it's an exceedingly strange one. Schall was evidently determined to give Threepenny the flavor of biting social criticism but nothing more. The program contains an intelligent (unsigned) article on celebrity culture, and the first spoken scene features a droll multi-media fillip at stardom: as Peachum explains the business of begging to Filch, a silent-movie-style clip is shown with the adult Polly (Maria Simon) waving from the center of a vintage movie-studio logo that reads "J.J. Peachum & Co." The show is replete with such fleeting diversions: rubber bars on Macheath's jail cell so he can walk in and out as needed; an undersized sofa that forces the Peachum family's tensions to a head. Schall has an eye for the casually ridiculous, and that's just the point. The dominant flavor of the evening is opera bouffe. The whole thing is crushingly lighthearted, as if the very idea of taking Brecht's satire of capitalist greed and corruption more seriously than a cartoon were beneath consideration.

The sets and costumes are all art-historical eye-candy from the period of Threepenny's origin. The furniture, doors, windows, walls and wings are framed in crazy expressionist diagonals and tastefully distressed to read "underworld," in a muted browns, beiges and white (set by Horst Vogelgesang). The actors wear heavy melodramatic makeup and stylish 1920s period outfits, also in muted colors but tricked up with silly touches like a rabbit-eared hat for Mrs. Peachum and a white pith helmet for Brown. There's a momentary burst of deeper design significance in the final scene, when the whole cast shows up for Macheath's hanging in loudly colorful outfits (get it? they wear their bloodthirstiness proudly, like party clothes), but this irony too is quickly blended into decidedly unironic razzle-dazzle as Macheath, not to be outdone, runs off to change into a bright red coat and steals the final chorus (written for "All") for himself. Grabbing a mic, he sings "Verfolgt das Unrecht nicht zu sehr" like a rock star while a giant live video of him is projected upstage. The ending is incomprehensible. Who or what confers his stardom? What happened to the Royal Messenger? And what does any of it have to do with the prosecution of crimes ("Unrecht") big or small? Most of the audience obviously didn't care, though. The party was a blast.

Thomas Langhoff's production of Ibsen's Die Wildente (The Wild Duck) at the Berliner Ensemble offered what might be regarded as the opposite snapshot of a dynastic scion in decline rather than on the rise. During most of the post-Wall period until his dismissal in 2000, Langhoff was the Intendant of the Deutsches Theater, the classically oriented jewel among the former GDR's theaters. Thomas's father, Wolfgang Langhoff, established that theater's reputation during his tenure as Intendant from 1946-63, promoting Stanislavskian realism against Brechtian theory and practice. Interestingly enough, Thomas's brother, Matthias Langhoff, is also a prominent director who built his early reputation at the Berliner Ensemble in the 1960s. Thomas Langhoff's prime task as DT Intendant was to define aesthetically what that theater ought to be in the capital of newly unified Germany. The half-dozen productions by him that I saw in the 1980s and 90s were remarkable for their cleverness in turning superb realistic effects to subtle political uses. (Volker Braun's Übergangsgesellschaft in 1988 and Hofmannsthal's Der Turm in 1993 come particularly to mind.) His tenure was contentious, particularly toward the end, but I appreciated the way he negotiated the disparities between Western and Eastern taste by investing in honest acting and intelligent exploration of great texts rather than conceptual ingenuity.

His production of The Wild Duck, however, is a textbook example of a still vigorous classic vitiated by an imposed concept. Langhoff apparently convinced himself that the concept was mild and therefore harmless: the action is transported from the 1880s to the present day. The Ekdal home is a low-rent, student-style loft with unremarkable modern furnishings that look scavenged or handed down (the dull and inefficient set design is by Peter Schubert). The characters all dress and speak like ordinary Germans one might meet on the street, and the photography equipment the Ekdals use is conspicuously contemporary. The neighbors Relling and Molvik barge in and out without knocking throughout, like Fred and Ethel, or Elaine and Kramer; no quaint 19th-century manners for this crowd. And characters variously amuse themselves with muzak and pop R&B from a boom box.

Ulrike Krumbiegel as Gina, Ulrich Noethen as Gregers, and Johann Adam Oest as Hjalmar in Ibsen's "Die Wildente," directed by Thomas Langhoff at the Berliner EnsembleThe trouble with all this contemporaneity is that the servile character of Gina--whose behavior is central to the plot--makes absolutely no sense as a modern woman. As played here by Ulrike Krumbiegel, Gina is pretty, poised and clearly predisposed to rise to an indignation that is unthinkable apart from the legacy of feminism. The very idea of her putting up with Hjalmar's idiotic paternalistic blustering and bossing is absurd. Ditto the way she dutifully clears out of the room with Hedvig, her daughter, whenever the men need to talk, or cheerfully wipes up Molving's vomit as Hjalmar sits on his rump. No theory about the comedy or tragicomedy in this play can paper over this basic contradiction. Any self-respecting woman like this Gina today--who runs the family business essentially alone in order to underwrite her muddled husband's daydreams--would bash Gregers Werle with a tripod if he invaded her home with his missionary "summons to the ideal."

The strangest part of Langhoff's production, for me, is that the acting could come off as so strong when the concept is so misguided. Krumbiegel's range is extraordinary; she can leap effortlessly between utterly convincing extremes of joy, fear, wariness, disappointment, opportunism and more without once touching the terra firma of credible character. Similarly, Johann Adam Oest's Hjalmar is a comic tour de force; treating the role as completely spineless, he is free to make it a self-contained platform for singular displays of morbidly self-absorbed clowning, fidgeting and mugging. Then there is Christina Drechsler as the suicidal child Hedvig, a marvel of irresistible earnestness and charm who is also ultimately in a world of her own. As I walked out of the BE, I thought of Ellen Terry's notorious advice to Sir Cedric Hardwicke about how an actor can always trump a playwright: "My boy, act in your pauses." This Wild Duck was a ringing medley of pauses.

Ronald Kukulies as Orestes, Yvon Jansen as Hermione, and Mark Waschke as Pyrrhus in "Andromache," directed by Luk Perceval at the Schaubuhne, BerlinBy far the most satisfying production I saw in Berlin was one that recalled dynastic inheritance mainly in its subject matter. Racine's Andromache is a tight kettle of a tragedy from 1667 in which unrequited love among survivors of the Trojan War threatens to reignite that conflict. Orestes loves Helen's daughter Hermione, who is betrothed to the dead Achilles's son Pyrrhus, who loves not her but rather Andromache, Hector's widow, his war prisoner. Pyrrhus has been protecting Andromache and her infant son Astyanax, heir to the Trojan throne, in the hope of winning her love and trust, when Orestes arrives with an ultimatum from the Greek leaders that he either turn over Astyanax or face invasion. Orestes hopes that Hermione will transfer her affections to him when Pyrrhus proves intractable, but events take a much messier and bloodier course when passion gets the better of reason. Luk Perceval, a Belgian who was recently named house director at the Schaubühne, has (along with his brother Peter) boiled this five-act drama down to a rich 55-minute concentrate--part installation art, part theater of images, part competitive wrestling, part tragedy.

The Perceval brothers' text reduces Racine's Alexandrines to the most minimal colloquial dialogue, establishing the situation and the principal characters' essential qualities with brief matter-of-fact remarks that include epithets like Schlappschwanz (limp dick) and Hosenscheisser (one who shits his pants) and outbursts like "You're perverse. You turn love over and fuck it in the ass." Taken alone, this text would be trivial, a shallow digest of Racine, but in the context of Perceval's remarkable staging it becomes a perfect informal foil for physical formality.

A cylindrical plastic curtain squeaks round on a high ceiling track to reveal Hermione, Pyrrhus, Andromache, Orestes and Orestes's friend Pylades in frozen poses atop a plinth apparently made of thick metal plates, about six feet high and fifteen feet wide, surrounded at its base by a sea of broken glass and thousands of bottles, broken and intact (stage design by Annette Kurz). A listless clinking sound turns out to be Hermione (Yvon Jansen), in a low-cut dress, leaning steeply over the side and scraping a bottle against the metal, presently smashing it. She then lunges with all her strength at the man beside her (Pyrrhus, played by Mark Waschke), who, like the other men, is shirtless above a blue floor-length skirt. Muscles rippling, their heavy breathing amplified loudly by head mics, these two wrestle each other for ten minutes, to a tense and sweaty stalemate.

This is Perceval's powerful reinvention of Racine's claustrophobic neoclassicism. The Perceval characters are not rationally passionate disputants in some idealized space of abstract reason but rather physically brazen denizens of a sensually supercharged purgatory where they are doomed to play out their passions to the hilt, over and over. That they may be dead hardly lessens their immediacy as the audience relishes the hot, straining bodies played off against frozen sculptural poses. There are also fascinating ambiguities born of uncertainty over which words whispered into the head mics (and heard only from the wings) are meant for whom. Hermione, speaking "privately" to Andromache, drapes herself across Pyrrhus and then turns to scream silently into Orestes's belly. A string of "I love you's" has no clear addressees since during it no character looks at the person he or she loves. Jagged bottle shards are held tensely against bare skin on backs, breasts and throats. It's impossible to avert one's eyes.

Mark Waschke as Pyrrhus, Jutta Lampe as Andromache in "Andromache," directed by Luk Perceval at the Schaubuhne, BerlinMeanwhile, Andromache--played by Jutta Lampe, a Schaubühne star from the Peter Stein era who is making her long-awaited return to this theater--sits motionless to the side in a brown knit dress that extends a yard below her feet. She looks vaguely like a Greek Fate and listens closely the entire time with mostly neutral but occasionally sympathetic expressions. She is utterly collected and impassive, rarely looking at the others, her self-possession clearly due to her foreknowledge that she need only bide her time and let the drama take its course, since her character comes out on top every time. It's a wonderful but surprising performance for Lampe, a consummate actor's actor whose towering and expansive portrayals as Phaedre and Athena are legendary at this theater. Here she sits with eyes closed and hands behind her back during the play's culminating violence (all reported, not enacted), fiddling with her fingers as the curtain squeaks round to end the play. One of the greatest living actresses of the German-speaking stage returns triumphantly to Berlin in order, well, not to act! She was happy to serve Perceval's fine idea. Now there's a grand tribute to an exciting new theatrical leader and fresh blood he brings to the art.

Travelers Note: The Schaubühne Andromache is scheduled to play at the Edinburgh International Festival from August 16-18, 2004.


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