Samstag, 31. Oktober 2009

Kleist in the Theater

I've been trying to take advantage of the rich variety of cultural events the city has to offer -- there are three quite active theaters and frequent readings by both established and less well-known authors -- but mostly I've always been either too stressed or too absent-minded and haven't actually managed to attend anything.
Until this last week, when I saw two productions, both of them based on works by Kleist. (Nearly two centuries after his death, Kleist finally seems to be coming into his own on the German stage. I'm all for it.)

The first was an adaptation of the short story "Die Marquise von O" based on a stage version by Ferdinand Bruckner. The acting was superb, as was the blocking. The music was somewhat odd, but effective. The piece shifts the emphasis of the story somewhat: while much of Kleist's story depends on the fact that the reader is as much in the dark as the characters, the play leaves no doubt about what happened to the Marquise and who is responsible for her pregnancy. Instead, it focuses on the aftermath of rape and the victim's difficulty in coming to terms with what happened (to the point of denying or repressing the traumatic event) and her contradictory feelings about her rapist.
Thus, the adaptation was based on the insight that at the core of the story is a psychological dilemma which is still very relevant today. Oddly enough, this was the main weakness of the production as well as its strength.
Interspersed between the scenes were recitations by a narrator of passages from the story; in some ways this is quite a brilliant idea, it's imminently appropriate for Kleist where problems of knowledge have such a central role. Particularly when the narrator is present as an observer at key scenes and later slips into the role of one of the characters.
However, as actually used in the production, the narration was jarring and sometimes quite confusing. Rather than providing key bits of information which the characters were unaware of or unable to admit, or (more prosaicly) filling in gaps in time, the narration summarized portions of the story which were subsequently acted out by the other characters.
Because the outlines of the story were the same, but the responses of the characters to the various events were not, the narration created a sense of dissonance, emphasizing the differences between Kleist's society and our modern, liberated one, as though the play were engaged in a dispute with its classical model. And this, in turn, tended to reduce the plausibility of the modern version. The characters' behavior within the individual scenes made sense, but the scenes themselves didn't always seem to completely fit together, except by the (externally imposed) structure of Kleist's story. So, while the idea is interesting, in this case I think in practice it fell somewhat short of its goal.

The second piece was "Das Kätchen von Heilbronn". I think it would have helped if I had been acquainted with more than the general outline of the play before seeing it, both from the standpoint of simply understanding what was going on, as well as being able to recognize where the director had taken liberties with the script and where, in fact, he hadn't.
This unusual and sometimes rather disorienting experience. Quite literally: the audience sat on the stage while the action took place backstage, in the wings, the rafters, and even the seating area normally reserved for the audience. It is extremely odd to sit in the dark at the beginning of the play facing the wrong side of the curtain. And then to have the whole podium on which you are sitting suddenly start rotating to reveal a whole new space in the area that had been behind you. And so the play opens to a surreal trial instigated by some unknown entity (God?) while the chararacters try to explain themselves to voices coming from above in the catwalk. (When I describe it this way one wants to ask, is this Kleist we're talking about here or some modern absurdist play? Lest anyone get the wrong impression: this was not a misguided attempt to 'modernize' a classic, although it did make use of a wide variety of styles and media. Let us say rather that Kleist's concern with existential crises, the difficulty his characters have in distinguishing dream from reality -- these elements of his work find a certain sympathy in contemporary audiences. So the comparison with the theater of the absurd is perhaps not as unapt as it seems at first glance.)
The rotating stage was more effective at the beginning, where the audience was still not entirely sure what to expect. By the sixth or seventh rotation, however, the suspicion began to creep in that these shifts were motivated less by dramatic or artistic reasons than because the script required a change of scene. All the same -- on some level it remained impressive. Along with the film projections onto the stage, the special effects (rain and wind), and the suspension of several characters on cables, it rather took on the quality of a grandious spectacle.
The slightly fantastic feel, the constant running about and mixture of styles and periods seems appropriate, however, for a play which I suspect is fairly chaotic (Shakespearean, I suppose it would have been described in Kleist's day). I'm not absolutely certain that the angel who appeared in the piece, and who played the role of companion, helper, and sometimes not-so-subtle manager of the unfolding events was part of the original, but I wouldn't put it past Kleist, either.
I really need to go back and read the play, now. Although one of the nice things about theater is that (most of the time) you don't need to understand every word to be able to follow the general flow of the plot, all the same, the performance was a sobering reminder of where the limits of my German skills are. Understanding a lecture, where the primary goal is to communicate information, is one thing; processing Kleist's archaic language while it is spoken by agitated characters is another. And I'm definitely not quite there yet.

"Die Marquise von O." Ferdinand Bruckner/Heinrich von Kleist. Directed by Alexander Krebs. Junges Theater, Göttingen. 28.10.09
"Das Käthchen von Heilbronn." Heinrich von Kleist. Directed by Mark Zurmühle. Deutsches Theater,
Göttingen. 30. 10.09

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