Category Archives: Theatre

The Ilana Opera and Theater Awards

I’ve probably miscounted somewhere, but it looks like I saw 38 plays and 44 operas in Europe this past season. As you might guess, I have some favorites. So without further ado, let’s begin with operas:

The Unexpected but Awesome Colors Award for surprisingly successful production aesthetics is split between David Bösch’s dark L’elisir d’amore and Peter Konwitschny’s (initially) cheerful cruise-ship Tristan und Isolde.

The Totally Regie Award goes to Antú Romero Nunes’ bold and striking William Tell, where everyone was a terrible person and the overture was not where I expected it. A close runner-up is the gritty Traviata I saw in Stockholm, where Kasper Holten managed to make strippers and homelessness part of this usually sparkly tragedy. (Note: many more productions were totally Regie; these are just the ones that were most successful at it.)

The Are They Even Human? Award for absurdly good singing is a three-way tie between Evelyn Herlitzius (Brünnhilde), Anja Kampe (Sieglinde), and Javier Camarena (Don Ramiro) in Die Walküre and La Cenerentola.

The Went Back for Seconds Award is reserved for the only opera I went to see twice: Hans Neuenfels’ Manon Lescaut starring Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais. It was even better the second time, even if I never quite grasped the logic behind the Oompa Loompas. Oh, and did I mention that I got to meet Jonas Kaufmann?

The I Guess Modern Opera is Actually Pretty Good Award has three winners: Andreas Kriegenburg’s staging of Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging of Berg’s Luluand Peter Konwitschny’s staging of Rihm’s Die Eroberung von MexicoNone of these shows was particularly fun to watch (mostly because of the dark subject matter), but they were all breathtakingly well-directed and well-acted. Great conducting brought out the lyricism in atonal scores and prevented the music from just sounding like noise. Continue reading The Ilana Opera and Theater Awards

A Clavigo full of hot air

I love Goethe. Goethe is the reason I learned German. That doesn’t mean his texts are sacred. (No texts are sacred.) But it does mean that I bought tickets to Clavigo at the Salzburg Festival because I was excited to see a very rarely performed Goethe play. I saw a press release that the main roles had been gender-swapped and got even more excited. I saw the dreaded byline ‘nach Goethe’ (‘nach’ implies ‘inspired by,’ in contrast to the more straight forward ‘von’ or ‘by’) but still held out hope. My hope was sadly misplaced.

© Salzburger Festspiele / Arno Declair
© Salzburger Festspiele / Arno Declair

Goethe’s play is a tale of competing ambition and love. Clavigo is an up-and-coming Spanish writer. In his younger and poorer days, he fell in love with and became engaged to the charming but sickly Marie. However, when his star started to rise, his friends convinced him that Marie would hold his career back. At best, she’d be a distraction; at worst, she’d prevent an advantageous marriage. So he broke the engagement. Marie’s brother Beaumarchais (yes, the French playwright—this is loosely based on real events) has come to Spain to confront Clavigo. He exorts a (potentially career-killing) written confession of wrongdoing from Clavigo but promises not to have it published until Clavigo can ask Marie for pardon and renew their engagement. Clavigo successfully does this, but his friends (and his own feelings) convince him that this was a mistake and begin criminal proceedings against Beaumarchais. Marie, upon hearing of this, dies. Clavigo (who has not heard the news) stumbles upon her funeral procession and is distraught. Beaumarchais fatally stabs Clavigo, and Clavigo accepts his death as atonement for his crime. Continue reading A Clavigo full of hot air

Are Mother Courage’s children dead yet?

That’s all I could think during Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder at the Kammerspiele last night. It dragged on and on for what felt like much longer than two hours. And there was no intermission, so there was no chance of escape. The Munich Kammerspiele has a long history with this show—they actually staged the second-ever production in Germany, with Brecht himself directing. One presumes he made it a lot more interesting than this new production’s director, Thomas Schmauser.

Ursula Werner, Lena Lauzemis, Peter Brombacher, Christian Löber, Stefan Merki, and Leonard Klenner. Photo: Julian Baumann
Ursula Werner, Lena Lauzemis, Peter Brombacher, Christian Löber, Stefan Merki, and Leonard Klenner. Photo: Julian Baumann

The show was often physically painful. I realize that Brecht plays are supposed to provoke discomfort, but I always thought that was intellectual discomfort. Here, long songs sung off-key and whole scenes that were shouted at the top of the actors’ lungs (in the small black box venue) forced me to cover my ears. Lena Lauzemis’s shrill, nasal voice as Yvette hurt, too. Taking things to extremes can be effective, but not when those extremes are so annoying that they distract from the words and story. Continue reading Are Mother Courage’s children dead yet?

The (fun) little Faust

Mephisto warned us right at the beginning of tonight’s performance that we wouldn’t leave weeping over Marguerite’s fate. I sincerely hope that wasn’t news to the people crazy enought to book tickets to a German translation of a French operetta parody of a French opera of a German play. I was one of those people. And while I knew to expect silliness, I wasn’t sure exactly what Hervé’s Le petit Faust (or, as the Gärtnerplatztheater is calling it, Dr. Faust jun.) would be. As it turns out, it’s a wonderfully topsy-turvy version of the original, in which Maguerite is not so innocent, Faust is not so thoughtful, and no one should be taken seriously. Spinning wheels and pseudo-woeful monologues and showpiece arias all have their place… and so do yodeling, zombies, and can-can dancing.

Marguerite, the can-can dancer. All photos © Christian POGO Zach
Marguerite, the can-can dancer. All photos © Christian POGO Zach

The story: Dr. Faust is a professor at a boarding school. Valentine entrusts his troublesome sister Marguerite to Faust’s care, and Faust is immediately drawn to her. So he’s an easy target when Mephisto comes offering youth, beauty, and riches. The price? His understanding. (Not his soul—“Everyone sells that these days, without even signing a contract.”) He has imagined Marguerite as the pinnacle of innocence and purity, and with his newfound advantages, he sets out to seek her. Meanwhile, she has gone to England to teach the English can-can dancing. Faust finally finds her in a seedy nightclub, and he is horrified that an “innocent” girl could have stumbled into such a place. He flags down a carriage to take her away, and who should be inside but Valentine? Because Faust is trying to run off with his sister, Valentine fights Faust and is killed. (But don’t worry—Valentine’s death doesn’t prevent him from dancing jigs.) As Marguerite and Faust prepare for their marriage, Valentine’s ghost appears to warn Marguerite that Faust’s fortune comes from the devil. She doesn’t care—until Faust reveals that, in order to make himself worthy of her, he has given away the fortune. Suddenly, she cares a great deal and is denouncing him as the murderer of her brother. Faust is finally disillusioned, but Mephisto nevertheless forces Faust and Marguerite together “eternally,” in obedience to the wish Faust had expressed. Continue reading The (fun) little Faust

Seagull steak

My “WTF” tag is getting a lot of use these days.

I had this strange idea that because the Seagull tonight wasn’t actually a Volkstheater production (it was by the Otto Falckenberg Schule, in the Volkstheater’s black box space), it might be a little more normal than most things I see there. Hah! This is Germany. Normal and theater don’t go together. But usually I can puzzle out what is going on. Here, I had absolutely no clue what director Stephanie van Batum was thinking.

It actually started fairly normally. I mean, sure, we were in the modern era. A fashion runway served as the stage. The women all wore crop tops and impossibly short skirts. Trigorin made notes of anything that inspired him on his smartphone. Kostja had to remove the plastic packaging from his ‘seagull’ meat before dropping it on Nina’s doorstep. But we were seeing Chekhov’s play. I didn’t love the overdrawn, caricature-like portrayals of most of the characters—particularly in such a small space—but that choice did work to emphasize the play’s darkly comedic aspects, and it made the two more naturalistically acted characters (Nina and Kostja) stand out in contrast. (Nina became more over-the-top as she was seduced by the lure of fame and of Trigorin.) The young ensemble was, without exception, extraordinarily talented.

And then the final scene happened. People had… transformed. Doktor Dorn was Andy Warhol. Arkadina: Marilyn Monroe. Sorin: Hugh Hefner. Trigorin: James Dean. Mascha: Amy Winehouse. They stood along the runway and delivered their lines infuriatingly slowly, with lots of long pauses. Nina and Kostja—still themselves—stood at the end of the runway and vibrated to thrumming bass. (Were they on a train? Or in a station? I didn’t quite understand the noise and shaking.) They dripped sweat. They talked unnaturally quickly. Nina was confused—was she a seagull or an actress?—but she managed to find her footing and step onto the runway. She suddenly stopped vibrating and regained her normal voice. Kostja simply fell over, presumably dead. The others took no notice.

This is not a review but a plea for help. Does anyone have any idea what could have been happening here? I understand that the choice of celebrity for each Chekhov character reflected that person’s attributes, but why the transformation? Why the shaking? Why the utterly undramatic death that didn’t even seem like a suicide? I’m lost.

A chaotic Caligula

What did I see last night at the Volkstheater? It was Camus’ Caligula—that much was clear. But it was part play, part drag show, part music video. The piece retained its impeccable existialist credentials, dealing intelligently with questions of radical freedom gone wrong, equality leading to tyranny, and wholesale destruction as the only escape from meaninglessness. Projections flashed across the background rapid-fire, tying those themes to everything from Communism in China to factory farming to the military-industrial complex. It was confusing, chaotic, impossible to keep track of the different layers of meaning. Somehow, miraculously, director Lilja Rupprecht’s choices created an aesthetically and emotionally unified whole (though I would be hard-pressed to articulate precisely what the unifying principles were). And every minute of it was exciting.

The opening scene screams ‘conservative’: the chorus of Roman senators appear in suits, complaining about ‘nichts.’ Nothing, that is. Nothing getting done. Nothing to be done about the emperor’s madness. Nothing turned up in their search for him. Rupprecht is intentionally setting up an expectation to be undermined. As the senators talk, a giant projection of Caligula’s head appears on a scrim in the background. When they leave, the scrim opens, and Caligula appears—stark-naked and covered in mud. As he disappears and re-appears through the set’s three doors, he articulates his ideas to his advisor Helicon. He has not gone mad over his sister Drusilla’s death, he insists. But he wants the impossible to become possible. He wants freedom. He wants (quite literally) the moon. Caesonia, who loves him, agrees to help him, though he warns her that it will mean both inflicting and suffering pain.

When his senators find him, he dictates a new law: all patricians will be required to disinherit their children and leave their property to the state. Then they will be killed. He overrules his senators’ protests and insists that one of them strip. When we see them again, it is three years later. They are wearing skimpy aprons. All have suffered family members’ deaths or humiliations at Caligula’s hands. They plot against him, but each also feels a secret tie to Caligula. In a chaotic dance number full of loud music and projections, Caligula questions each of them and Helicon announces that all shall die—it’s only a matter of time. Just as suddenly as it began, the dance number ends, and Caesonia asks the terrified senators for their artistic criticisms. In another bizarre episode, Caligula has himself declared a god. Wearing a tutu and white mask, he responds to all of Caesonia’s hype with a condescending ‘Ja.’ Accused of outraging the gods, he responds that he is glorifying them by instantiating them on earth, making the unreal real. Continue reading A chaotic Caligula

English theatre scenes

Between my travel and reviewing schedules, I decided not to be involved in the Ludwig Maximilian University English Drama Group’s fall or spring productions. But when fellow American expat (and excellent actress) Jessica (who was in a 24-hour play with me earlier this year) planned an informal collection of scenes, I knew I had to participate. I’ve been missing the stage! Rouven, another member of the group, posted an open invitation to do something from The Revenger’s Tragedy, and of course I jumped at the chance. (I performed a scene from this absurd Jacobean revenge tragedy in my Advanced Scene Study class in undergrad, and the play is so much fun.) We picked a scene between the Duchess and Spurio. The Duchess, angry at the Duke for failing to interfere and save her son (who is on trial and facing capital punishment for rape), plots revenge. Spurio is also bitter towards the Duke for making him a bastard—if he had been “cut a right diamond,” he would be next in line for the dukedom. The Duchess happens to be in love with her stepson Spurio, so she decides to seduce him (and thereby cuckold her husband) to both satisfy her lust and get her revenge.

We performed the showcase on April 18, and I think our scene went pretty well. The showcase itself was quite varied. Some scenes were carefully rehearsed and directed; others were more thrown together. Azey directed a fabulously modern and physical Petruchio-Kate scene from Taming of the Shrew. Other pieces came from Midsummer, Richard IIICyranoAlice in Wonderland, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. We also got a musically questionable but undoubtedly enthusiastic rendition of ‘Agony’ from Into the Woods. It was all good fun!

Group photo of the performers, directors, and organizers
Group photo of the performers, directors, and organizers