Posted by: Kennedy | May 6, 2010

Spectator and Spectacle: Theater in Berlin in 2010

One of the beautiful things about studying abroad in Berlin is that Germans are kind to culturally interested students. One of the beautiful things about shelling out for a study abroad program like Duke in Berlin is that you forget when you paid even that small student fee for your ticket (or, more likely, that your parents did when they wrote that tuition check at the beginning of the semester). The result is that it often feels as though my program director is the funnel for free tickets to operas, plays, symphonies, and museum tours that are raining from the sky.

I’m optimistic that I will have attended a performance in every opera house and theater in Berlin by the time I leave. No small feat—remember that Germans are known the world over as music lovers, and the years of a divided city multiplied the number of cultural venues. I owe my newfound, wholehearted love of Opera entirely to seeing “La Boheme” in the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Though, I knew I was falling for it when we watched “La Traviata” in the Dresdner Semperoper and I thoroughly enjoyed it—despite having seats so far up and to the right that it was really an instance of “hearing” the opera rather than seeing it.

This semester has brought an enjoyable new theme to the “free” tickets that my program director, Jochen Wohlfeil, doles out once or twice a week. On top of our classes at the Freie Universität, all the Duke in Berlin students take a German literature and theater class with Jochen twice a week. So far, we have read Goethe, Schiller, lots of Brecht, other odds and ends, and seen the respective plays. Reading the play, talking about for four hours in class, seeing a play a week, and writing a short paper on each becomes quite a time commitment when you consider that we are all working in our second language, but it has huge pay-offs. It’s amazing what comes alive after seeing a scene staged a way you hadn’t imagined it, or simply realizing how words stay with you when you hear them after reading them.

For example, while Brecht’s “Der Guter Mensch von Sezuan” took rather too many cumulative bus and S-Bahn rides to read, the musical production of the play that we saw at the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz was both memorable and humorous. Brecht plays are famous for the author’s focus on minimal sets and costumes as a form of “epic theater,” the purpose being to remind the audience that what they are seeing is indeed a play. Brecht’s plays are often staged in theaters where the audience on one side of the stage can see the viewers on the other side. Likewise, in “Der Guter Mensch von Sezuan,” the protagonist poses the great moral question of the play to the audience to answer, breaking that traditional “fourth wall” dividing actor from spectator. Surprisingly, the performance also included special effects, such as real water to drench the actors during the scene where Shen Te and Yang Sun meet under a tree in the rain, and hilarious costumes for the actors. Those, too, were consistent with Brecht’s goal of continually breaking through the fourth wall: party hats, bathrobes, and wheelchairs signified character changes for a single actor. When only 7 people play the parts of 20, a spectator is always forced to remember that he or she is watching a constructed scene and, subsequently, also forced to question why it was written and performed in that way.

Last week, I attended a more traditional performance of a play written about Heinrich Zille (creatively entitled “Zille”) at Komödie Theater am Ku’damm. Written by Horst Pillau for Walter Plathe, the more traditional staging presents the story of Heinrich Zille, painter, philanthropist, and low-brow member of the high-class Kunst Akademie, during the Kaiserreich. While the play fell more appropriately into the category of traditional theater (intended for pure audience enjoyment versus the often uncomfortable, but thought-provoking, performances of Brecht’s works), Zille’s story was decidedly one worth telling. Without explicitly aligning himself to a political party, Zille raised a ruckus with his graphic depictions of Berlin’s slums, pregnant prostitutes, and other less desirable elements during his lifetime. One hundred years later, his cartoonish portraits of common man, and woman, appear more charming than disruptive.

Reading the screenplay and seeing the performance was my first introduction to Zille, but Walter Plathe’s excellence performance brought to mind similarities between Zille and Charles Dickens. Both appear to have been charismatic artists: one with a potent pen, the other with a powerful brush, and both with one foot in the gutter—  to the dismay of their contemporaries who might have appreciated them more, if only they hadn’t been forced to acknowledge the existence of gutter-dwelling humanity at the same time they recognized the artistic gifts of its portrayers.

On Monday, the Maxime Gorki studio hosted a staged reading of Herztier, a novel written by 2009 Nobel Prize Winner, Herta Müller. (I believe it’s titled The Land of Green Plums in English.) I’d optimistically purchased the book in Berlin right after Müller’s name made the press for stealing with prize away from a favored American author. Müller, who now lives in Berlin, is originally from the German-speaking minority in Romania. Most of her works have strong autobiographical elements, like Herztier, which is the story of young Romanian resistance-minded poets during the 80s. After persevering through the first 40 pages last fall, I set the book aside to finish with much more rapidity and success when we read it for class in April. Dense with metaphors, poetical prose, and secondary meanings, Müller’s style is difficult even for native German-speakers. The second time I picked up the book, with several more months of German practice, I couldn’t put it down. Even though I wasn’t reading in my mother tongue, her metaphors were powerful enough to communicate her message. Her style is unique, filled with leitmotifs and bouncing back and forth between the conscious thought of different characters.

The staged reading was simple, short, and accurately described by one of my classmates as “sensory-overload.” One blonde actress, one classic black dress, one bucket of plums, one loudspeaker, one black-box theater, one walled-in stage from which the actress spoke. I was taught that a good author is one who makes every word count. I think this was the principle that made Herztier speak volumes, even through the shortened staged reading. Lines of spoken poetry recalled whole scenes and elaborate themes from the book. Likewise, the practiced freedom to perform and discuss the thoughts— for which characters in the book had to find similes, metaphors, and symbols to express— was a dramatic repetition of Herta Müller’s message.

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