I could have started anywhere but I begin with notes taken during a performance by my favorite director Frank Castorf.
In the past 10 years I've seen 3 or 4 performances directed by Castorf at the Volksbuhne in Berlin. Not clear on the number because I think one of the plays that seemed to carry his signature was perhaps by someone else... it just felt related to Castorf's post-modern and pop-cultured extensions of Brecht. Castorf's work is consistently the most engaging theatre I've ever seen and I don't understand a word of German.
I saw a theatrical recreation and deconstruction of a Fassbinder film (The bitter tears of Petra von Kant), a ritual of nostalgia as contemporary performance. I was provoked, inspired, seduced, maybe even bored at times but I knew I was in the hands of a major artist and couldn't wait for more.
My next opportunity was Castorf's Trainspotting. This was the play that convinced me that German actors have the best vocal training in Western Theatre. Maybe some classical Korean or Noh actors have their talents, but for sure there are few if any American actors who can screech and roar, bellow and grind like the actors I've seen in every Volksbuhne production. The female lead never left her bed, which meant that 2 tech guys had to wheel her on and off throughout the event. She only communicated by yelling her text, often in a broken voice that would have destroyed the vocal talents of most actors. Within minutes of her first appearance (and sounding!) I looked at my program to see if she performed this vocal circus act on consecutive nights. Yes. A virtuoso freak show of raw emotion communicated with a formal rigor that was as cool as it was stunning.
Tonight, July 3 2008, I saw Die Massnahme/Mauser based on Die Massnahme by Brecht with music by music by Hanns Eisler and Mauser by Heiner Müller. The Mauser section included choreography by Meg Stuart, an American whose company Damaged Goods has been based in Brussels and now Berlin for several years.
My notes are simply an attempt to describe what happened and what caught my attention. If you want to read a critical slam of the work by one of the many people who think that Castorf's work is a steaming heap of clichés, go to:
Roughly constructed scaffold/platform extends diagonally from audience to upstage left, dramatically spanning a 3-4 meter drop into the orchestra pit, and trimmed with red plywood pieces. The upstage end slopes upwards to make a steep ramp suspended from pulleys and cables. Upstage right, seen through the 3 meter platform legs, are 20-30 cheap white plastic chairs hosting approximately 10 audience members who paid less.
Sounds begin. Horns. Because it's contemporary art in Europe I can't tell if they're tuning or if this is an intentional composition or both.
When we entered I say to my buddy Jess that we could go to ACT - San Francisco's biggest funded public theater - from now until eternity and we would never see a set this rough, unfinished, engaging, or risky.
2 young men in dark suits (one with velvety jacket, another with red shirt and loose black tie) pick up a woman (dark long skirt and belted jacket closed tight all the way to neck) and run up the ramp, then down, then towards us along the diagonal platform, then back to center where an older man is seated facing stage left in one of the white plastic chairs. She speaks. When he responds another young man (in white shirt) stands with the other 3, video camera in hand. A close-up of the man speaking - 55-ish with grey beard and black framed glasses - appears on a 'screen' above the platform, stage right. The screen is approximately 3m x 3m of plywood with what appears to be blank posters (white pieces of paper - 11x17 ish) pasted over most of it.
The orchestra begins. The conductor, who we can't see, is projected onto the back wall, huge. Then a 70 voice choir bursts into song behind us. Filling 2 rows at the back of the steeply raked house, they take their direction from the projection.
More happens: 2 projection sites, actors, choir, orchestra.
German actors have the best vocal training (in the West). One after another 2 men screech their texts in upper register. Loud. Funny-weird. Amazing. All actors respond, ensemble choral, in equally high-pitched, loud-volumed voices.
2 women singers (in satin party dresses - one black, one turquoise - and heels) scurry down the aisle stairs, making little squeaks, and continue to down stage center. They spit once up towards the actors on the platform and then they turn to us and sing an operatic duo. The full chorus, still behind us, responds while three young male actors smear paint on their face - one red, one blue, one green.
When the choir is not singing, the back wall projections are stills of Russian or Chinese communist-era posters, with one of the actors' faces superimposed.
The audience in the discounted onstage seats see very little, watching the backs of the actors and missing half the projections.
At this point in the production (20 minutes?) I realize that the chorus is following the projected conductor. It's a practical device (or a practical joke?).
Now it's snowing heavily. Actors pace and stagger. The conductor projection is seen through a blizzard. Chorus now in full song. When the chorus sings, the lights are on them & therefore us.
Snow stops. 3 male actors repeat choreography: walk, stagger as if hit in the belly, up the ramp, fall and slide down. Choir continues. How to describe full, opera-ish, multi-part choral singing? It's big, almost bombastic. I don't know have articulate language for this. I love their broad age range. All so alive. Costumes vary, a mildly tacky version of formal wear. A pregnant woman is in gold. More than one turquoise dress. The men's suits are generally dark.
The 3 actors sit at the bottom of the ramp, joined by the woman. They speak to camera and are now projected close-up on both 'screens': side and back wall.
Later, a scene takes place in the theatre lobby. We see and hear it only from projections and audio system. On stage, a woman from the chorus, gathering the hem of her long black, center-split dress with her right hand. She sings solo, intermittent with chorus, actors, orchestra. The actors return to live view, now in the house.
A long procession of the chorus singing a round. In two's they travel down the right aisle, out the door, back onto the stage, around the onstage audience, exit stage right, walk through the lobby. Their voices, once a blended whole, become distinct parts as they progressively exit and enter our hearing range, and then even more distinctly as they pass individually before the camera and mic.
This event is continually destabalized, bouncing from opera to film to various genres of theatre and experimental, physical, and visual performance.
Actors arrive downstage left, talking while pasting HUNGER posters (black text on white paper - yes the same size as blank posters on projection screen stage right). 2 women singers return, stand amongst actors and posters. They sing. The full chorus walks through scaffold to downstage and sings while pointing accusingly at the actors/duo/posters.
For a while I don't write.
Older male actor returns. Now a cop, he kills the woman actor by bopping her in the head with a toy rubber billy club. This is done near (for?) the onstage audience. We see the live action, obstructed, and close-up variations projected.
In a live off-site performance, staged as a film in the making, we see the old man (now wearing a fat belly costume over his clothes) and the woman making crass, childish sexual innuendos with chopsticks, wrappers, and fast food.
Other male actors punch through cheap walls until holes are big enough to push their heads into the scene. They watch the couple flirt and eat.
In the corner of the tiny film set stands the solo vocalist. We rarely see her face. She starts to sing. The older guy lipsynchs.
Only now do I realize that the film set is onstage, hidden upstage left under the ramp. It's in plain view of the onstage audience. I see that the mic is on a boom held by a second tech guy. Like any film shoot. This explains the sound quality being better than any video camera.
Often the text is performed chorally - 3 or 4 actors together - or the whole chorus - playing the solo voice in contrast with the group.
With the chorus onstage, singing, the actors leave the theatre, engage with people in a cafe across the street. The visual signal occasionally pixillates which seems to prove that the action is live. They approach a cat observing the street action from a first floor window sill. It flees. We laugh. Now it's not film but television. It's late-night reality Letterman. The actors sit with some boys on grass. Then they race back to the theatre screaming. One of them vaults a bicycle. Nice leap. They screech around a cop car. Coincidence? Real danger? And when they burst onstage there is applause.
They stand in the scaffolding over the edge of the pit, their toes extending past the beam that supports them, indicating the void below. We hear a mechanical hum. The pit raises to reveal 9 musicians, conductor, framed by the whole chorus on two sides. One of the music stands is draped with a HUNGER poster. The actors enter the apron/stage and deliver the next series of text amongst the musicians (seated) and chorus (standing). The conductor, back to audience, head bowed. Unlike the multi-generational chorus, the musicians seem to be in their 20's. But when they stand and depart, onto the main stage and then exit, I see that the piano player is at least 10 years older. After all the performers have exited, a crew of technicians removes the music stands and chairs and cables and all until the apron is empty and the stage is quiet.
With no intermission a new set is constructed beneath the platform, center stage - white plastic round table with several mics, and 5 matching chairs. I think Wooster Group in the round. The actors enter, khaki jackets replace dark suits, and sit at the chairs. They talk. Mauser has begun and we exit house left. It's been over 90 minutes and it's time to meet some friends coming out of the difficult piece Spectacular by Forced Entertainment, directed by Tim Etchells.
Jess and I saw this yesterday. There's much less to say about this thinly stretched anti-spectacle that would have made a great improv sketch in the studio. My one line review is: Forced Entertainment's Spectacular Killed Me.