Saturday, November 20, 2010

Maria Braun Gets Married All Over Again

The Schaubühne's Thomas Ostermeier is no slouch when it comes to restaging plays that have been famously staged over and over again (Hamlet, for instance), but what happens when he sets himself the task of staging a work whose author turned it into one of the most iconic monuments of post-war German cinema? Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun is a stunning piece of filmmaking, and the script (also by Fassbinder) is powerful in its own right, telling the story of the eponymous "self-made woman" who rises from wartime squalor to post-war industrial fortune using only her good looks and above all her canny intelligence. Fassbinder's film is pretty much untrumpable. So Ostermeier, in setting himself the task of translating the script to the stage, turned radically away from the film—he says he didn't even look at it when he was planning his own production—to produce a performance that both works on its own terms and puts Fassbinder's story in the context of post-war and contemporary German theater.

To describe Ostermeier's strategy in a nutshell: He cranks up the volume on the Brechtian slant already present in Fassbinder's play. Forget realism. This production uses only five actors (four men and the glorious Brigitte Hobmeier) to fill the play's 25 roles, which means, among other things, men playing various female roles while wearing wigs and speaking in masculine voices; they aren't so much disguised as women as displaying markers of feminine identity. One wig even serves double-duty (one actor wears it as nature intended, the other back-to-front, and they sometimes hand it off mid-scene). Ostermeier makes heavy use of gestural techniques, e.g. having the character of the doctor (whose costume is a woman's coat, too small for him, worn with the front open to the back) stand repeatedly in a characteristic semaphore shrug of helplessness—after all, it's his job to issue women certificates of health so they can engage in prostitution and then return to him for treatment once they've contracted STDs or gotten knocked up. Ostermeier handles his props epic-theater-style as well: All those big mismatched 1950s padded armchairs that turn the stage into a sort of big waiting room (the play is set in the Waiting Room of History) get shoved into many different configurations, signifying an apartment, then a train, a car, a restaurant. And a character driving a car pantomimes not only the steering and shifting but also the windshield wipers.

All the Brechtian gestures in Ostermeier's staging come together at a key juncture in Maria Braun's trajectory: the moment when she has just sealed her first triumphant business deal after her boss has failed and then—in a perhaps even more significant victory—won over her former adversary, the firm's cautious accountant Senkenberg. Both coups bear witness to Maria's extraordinary psychological astuteness; she intuits not only what people want but how to give it to them, or more specifically: how to herself embody their desires. She is, in her own words, "the Mata Hari of the economic miracle." And at this moment in the play it is clear that she is destined for a successful career. Ostermeier marks the moment with a projected slide-show montage of commercially produced objects of desire accompanied by a loud cacophonous din, but not before offering us a brilliant bit of theatrical intertextuality: He has two actors approach the microphones at the front of the stage to accompany Maria's triumphant celebration with a chorus of loud panting. For those familiar with the Berlin theater scene, this is an obvious citation of the opening gambit in Heiner Müller's iconic 1995 staging of Bertolt Brecht's play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for the Berliner Ensemble. By equating Maria Braun's story with Arturo Ui's, Ostermeier provides a cynically subversive reading of Fassbinder's play that both Brecht and Fassbinder would have heartily approved of: Maria Braun's riding the waves of capitalism to wealth and power in the aftermath of war is just like Arturo Ui's (i.e. Adolf Hitler's) rise to power in the wake of economic crisis. After all, Fassbinder named her "Braun," the official color of the Nazi party—as Maria herself points out when she remarks apropos of her new lover, an African-American GI: "Better black than brown." Better indeed.

Overall, Ostermeier's Maria Braun is less striking and stunning than, say, the Hamlet he staged several years ago. He recycles from that play various techniques that have meanwhile become familiar to us from other stages as well: using video cameras on stage to project the faces of actors on parts of the set, even using their clothing as screens to project snippets of film. In this case, the use of film on stage is counterproductive because it just reminds us of Fassbinder's own (richer) images. Given the heartbreaking explosiveness of Fassbinder's final scene, it is perhaps unfair to carp that Ostermeier's staging of the play ends less with a bang than with a whimper. But where Fassbinder used to powerful effect the hysterically ecstatic voice of a radio announcer proclaiming Germany's victory in the 1954 World Cup, Ostermeier instead emphasizes a different pair of radio addresses, both by post-war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer—in the first, Adenauer declares himself vehemently opposed to the constitution of any sort of German army, and in the second, several years later, he announces his intention to create a new army for a new Germany. As Ostermeier sees it, commerce and militarization are two sides of a single coin. The career of his Maria Braun is merely a continuation of the war by other means.

Photos © Arno Declair and Sara Krulwich

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dance Theater in Berlin: Sasha Waltz

Sasha Waltz is one of the best-known choreographers in Germany (along with the late Pina Bausch, who was based in Wuppertal). Waltz founded her company Sasha Waltz & Guests in 1993, together with her professional and life partner Jochen Sandig, and ever since has played an instrumental role in bringing dance into the mainstream of Berlin cultural life, which among other things means moving it from the margins of the off-off to the institutions that have long been supporting Berlin’s astonishingly diverse theater offerings. In 1996 Waltz cofounded the Sophiensaele in Mitte, Berlin’s gallery district, to create a forum for dance and experimental theater projects, and in 1999 accepted the position of co-artistic director (along with Sandig, Thomas Ostermeier and Jens Hillje) of the most important theater in the western part of Berlin, the Schaubühne am Lehninger Platz on the Kurfürstendamm. Although Waltz’s position at the Schaubühne officially ended in 2004, she remains affiliated with the theater, which continues to feature a significant number of dance performances and collaborations between choreographers and theater directors.

Waltz's signature production, Körper (Bodies), which premiered at the Schaubühne in 2000 and was reprised there this August, was her breakthrough work; in it, she developed a strategy of not just using the bodies of her dancers to show us a dance but making bodies (and corporality itself) the subject of the work. This was the first piece of hers to travel extensively internationally. It established her as one of the leading voices in German choreography.

Sasha Waltz & Guests combines a fixed company (typically consisting of 25 members) with a large number of guest dancers from all over the world who join the troupe for particular productions. In Berlin they perform most frequently at the Schaubühne and at Radialsystem V, a relatively new arts performance space near Ostbahnhof. The group’s international composition becomes apparent whenever Waltz has her dancers open their mouths and add voice to motion, as happens for example in her “dance theater” work Gezeiten—the title means “tides” but also suggests “times”—which premiered at the Schaubühne in 2005. Gezeiten is a beautiful study of singularity and community in troubled times.

The production is divided into two parts: a relatively peaceful first half in which the dancers appear in small groups for an extended series of pas de deux, pas de trois and pas de quatre; they swirl about and through each other’s bodies, sharing body weight to launch one another aloft and supporting each other in unexpected configurations. Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites alternate with minimalist music composed by Jonathan Bepler. Waltz is concerned with presence defined simultaneously as physical and spiritual, and the tableau of dancers hurling themselves repeatedly onto each other’s bodies seems to be making as much a psychological as an aesthetic statement. She offers allegories of community as well, with dancers walking (in silence) in perfect lines, like human caterpillars, or running to sit upon each other’s knees to build large body sculptures. They twirl red chairs around like giant semaphore signals. She even has all her dancers line up against the back wall, moving their bodies up and down to sketch out graphs of ascending and descending lines. As a culmination of this strategy of using human bodies as building material, she wraps dancers in cloth singly or in pairs to create enormous cocoons that move in ways it seems impossible to attribute to human bodies.

The second half of Gezeiten takes a much darker turn, literally so: it begins with a fade to black and a truly frightening cacophonous din sustained for an unnervingly long time, it sounds as though the theater building itself is collapsing. And soon the dancers are seen running around in what appears to be a sort of war or catastrophe situation. We see a pantomime of ostracism, as one dancer is expelled from the group and then harassed, and soon panic grips the stage as a graveyard of precariously balanced brick crosses topples and smoke pours in through doors in the stage set, floorboards detach and commence an unnerving clattering that underlies the action that follows. Shouts in many languages fill the air as the dancers use their voices as well as their bodies to beat back the chaos they themselves are producing. Waltz’s vision here is theatrical, and yet her attention to the vocabulary of repeated motion is sustained even during the production’s most “dramatic” sequences. Again and again she fills the stage with dancers artfully staggering as though the floor were shifting beneath them—shifting differently for each of them, it seems, for they are both together and alone in their distress.

Waltz’s newest piece, Continu, combining motifs from several recent productions and featuring the orchestral work Arcana by Edgar Varèse, will premiere next week at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele.

(Körper picture © Bernd Uhlig; Gezeiten pictures courtesy of LG Arts Center; Continu pictures © Sebastian Bolesch.)