A wise Jew, an unwise director

When Lessing first published it in 1779, Nathan the Wise was so shockingly progressive that it was banned by the church. An intelligent, generous, compassionate, Jewish main character? A plea for people of all religions to focus on living good lives rather than violently asserting their religion’s superiority? Accidental almost-incest? The horror! (Okay, maybe that last one is still a little shocking, but you get the point.)

Central to the play’s message of tolerance is the presence of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish characters who are fundamentally good. Sure, some of them are prejudiced, especially at the beginning of the play, but they’re still essentially good people. (The Young Templar, for instance, initially says a lot of mean things about non-Christians, but he still saves Recha’s life at the risk of his own, and he still deals honorably with Saladin.) In fact, except for the Patriarch, who is a clear, exaggerated example of extremist religious intolerance (his most memorable line, repeated several times, is “The Jew must burn!”), everyone in the play has a working conscience and admirable character traits. That’s the point.

In his new staging for the Volkstheater, director Christian Stückl has badly missed the point. Continue reading A wise Jew, an unwise director

Munich Ballsaison

I’ve already been to Vienna twice (here, here) during the ball season / carnival / Fasching, and I’ll be back a third time before it’s over. But Munich has a ball season, too. Old newspaper articles indicate that it used to be a bigger deal, with hundreds of balls and a young “king and queen” who were expected to make an appearance at as many as nine events an evening. It’s smaller now, and many of the events take place in discos. But there are still a few old-style black-tie balls, so I decided to check them out.

First came the Ludwig Maximilian University Ball. It’s only in its second year, but it feels much older. The University’s gorgeous “large classroom” (famous for its history as the birthplace of German student resistance against the Nazis) had its seats removed and a dance floor installed for the occasion. Stately waltzes, a bar with reasonably priced drinks, and a delicious buffet made for a very fun night. The organizers cleverly recruited heavily at dance schools, so there were always couples on the floor. I managed to find a lead who had come alone, so I was set for the evening.

This ball also marked my intoduction to the Munich Francaise—a traditional contra dance done to (mostly) the same music as Vienna’s Fledermaus Quadrille, but with entirely different steps. We only did three of the five sets, but they were very well explained and demonstrated, so they worked brilliantly. There was even a bit where the ladies sat on the gentlemen’s hands and were lifted and twirled about in the air. It was great fun! Continue reading Munich Ballsaison


I grew up in a wonderful house run by two adorable cats. But last year in Cambridge and this year in Munich, I’ve been catless. It’s becoming difficult to live this way, so I did what any sensible Münchner would do: I visited Katzentempel.

As the name implies, this is a cats’ temple. Its feline owners have allowed some large tables and chairs in deference to their human guests, but that seems to be an afterthought. Large studio portraits of the cats-in-residence serve as decoration, along with other cat-themed artwork. Tunnels, cardboard boxes, and elevated walkways line the walls. Cat figurines and mugs sit on shelves as souvenirs for purchase. And of course cats wander to and fro, jumping onto counters, chairs, and laps—sometimes allowing visitors to pet them, but often simply posing gracefully and accepting distant admiration.

The cats’ people can cook (reasonably priced) human food pretty well, too: my freshly baked bread with hummus and jam was delicious, as was the rhubarb nectar I ordered to drink. But let’s be honest: Who cares? The chance to indulge in cat worship is the main reason to visit Katzentempel. It’s also conveniently near the university, so I’ll definitely be back the next time my current catlessness becomes too burdensome.

Three dances in three days

The Vienna social season began with the Silvesterball, and it’s now in full swing. (It will last until the end of carnival in mid-February.) I went back for my second visit this past weekend, attending three balls in three days!

It started with the Zuckerbäckerball—literally, the sugar bakers’ ball (promoted as the “sweetest ball of the season”)—on Thursday. I met up with two fellow Fulbrighters there. They had a nice table right on the dance floor in the main hall, so we partied in style.

Three Fulbrighters in Germany: Ilana, Libby, and Anna
Three Fulbrighters in Germany: Ilana, Libby, and Anna

As you might guess, this ball featured lots of cake. There were cake lottery tickets for sale (every ticket wins a cake, but the size and type is a surprise), sugar-sculpting demonstrations, and a cake-decorating competition. The entries for the competition were pretty impressive. A few of my favorites:

Continue reading Three dances in three days

A better-than-traditional Woyzeck

I don’t actually like Woyzeck very much, so I am not sure why I bought tickets to two different productions in the space of a few weeks. And they seem to be backwards: the usually more restrained Kammerspiele went a little crazy, and the usually too-Regietheater-even-for-me Volkstheater delivered a surprisingly traditional production.

Woyzeck (Sohel Altan G)  and Marie (Magdalena Widenhofer). Photo: Arno Declair
Woyzeck (Sohel Altan G.) and Marie (Magdalena Wiedenhofer). Photo: Arno Declair

Now, this is still Germany, so don’t over-interpret “traditional”. Director Abdullah Kenan Karaca has chosen period costumes and a gorgeous waterfall setting for the outdoor scenes, but that doesn’t mean this is Woyzeck as Büchner would have seen it. No, this is something better. The waterfall is one of three settings, along with the soldiers’ table full of wine and Marie’s dressing room. All exist and are occupied simultaneously—no set pieces leave the stage, and neither do any actors. This keeps the drama moving quickly and also makes some of the action far more disturbing: for instance, the drum major rapes Marie at the waterfall in the background as the soldiers humiliate Woyzeck in the foreground. Neither Marie nor Woyzeck is ever safe from the degrading and dangerous influences of the other characters, because they are never more than a few steps away.

Continue reading A better-than-traditional Woyzeck

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces

I’ve had a few visitors in the past couple weeks, which gave me an excuse to be tourist-y in Bavaria. This, of course, meant visiting castles—both the one very close to my house (Schloss Nymphenburg) and the more famous one a train ride away (Neuschwanstein). This also meant that I have photo evidence of these trips! (I may be terrible at taking pictures, but my visitors weren’t.)

Let’s start with Schloss Nymphenburg. It was originally built as the Bavarian royal family’s country hunting lodge. Of course, it’s now in the city, but that’s what happens when cities expand.

Continue reading The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces

The Threepenny Non-opera

Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera is much more a musical than an opera. But it decidedly isn’t a play, and that’s what director Christian Stückl and the Volkstheater seem confused about. Their production is almost very good: the acting, sets, and costumes all impress. But pacing issues and a failure to give proper attention to the music keep it from being entirely successful.

Stefan Ruppe as Peachum. Photo: Arno Declair
Stefan Ruppe as Peachum. Photo: Arno Declair

Continue reading The Threepenny Non-opera

Exit, dragged by a polar bear

“How many of you didn’t know anything about The Winter’s Tale before tonight?” the audience was asked just after intermission at the Volkstheater yesterday. Lots of hands went up. I hope those people do not think what they saw last night was Shakespeare’s play. It wasn’t any sort of coherent piece, really—much less what Shakespeare wrote.

Magdalena Wiedenhofer (Hermione), Max Wagner (Leontes). Photo: Arno Declair
Magdalena Wiedenhofer (Hermione), Max Wagner (Leontes). Photo: Arno Declair

Continue reading Exit, dragged by a polar bear

Silvester in Vienna

This makes two years in a row of spending New Year’s in Vienna! In 2013–14, I went because the New Year’s Eve ball at the Hofburg was the only part of social season that didn’t interfere with my class schedule. This year, I’ll be back to Vienna plenty more times during the season, but I decided to return for New Year’s as well. I partied with Lucas, whom I met at the same ball last year, and Megan and Jamesa, two fellow Fulbrighters in Germany.

At the entrance to the New Year's Eve ball. Left to right: Megan, Lucas, Ilana, Jamesa.
At the entrance to the New Year’s Eve ball. Left to right: Megan, Lucas, Ilana, Jamesa.

Continue reading Silvester in Vienna