I’m still processing my reactions to the Deutsches Theater’s production of Nathan the Wise, the Enlightenment masterpiece from 1779 by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.
“Provocative” would be an understatement — though provocation (or at least the semblance thereof) is mother’s milk in this theater scene by comparison with the usual fare in the English-speaking world.
At least it can’t be denied that director Andreas Kriegenburg, along with his designers Harald Thor (sets) and Andrea Schraad (costumes), has created a visually arresting production: inspired by the enigmatic monolith at the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s dominated by a large wooden cube — here, a ramshackle, hut-like structure that comically, unpredictably, moves back and forth on the stage.
The Kubrickian impetus is also apparent in a lengthy pantomime-prelude that has nothing to do with Lessing. Kreigenburg shows two “clay figures,” man and woman after the moment of their creation in the process of discovering each other, but then enters in original sin…by way of a primeval “us against them” pattern the cast enacts. And then a childish voice reminds everyone: “But what about the Lessing?” — and the “play” begins.
The comedy is the thing here: Kriegenburg has dared to radically rethink this sacred text of Enlightenment tolerance as an “archaic comic strip” in which the characters — still decked out in their primordial clay but adorned with cliched bits of dress and props to signify their religious affiliations — waddle about in the comic style of silent films, recalling Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in their gestures. (Some of their stage movement also called The Walking Dead zombie dramaturgy to mind, though I couldn’t tell whether that was intentional.)
Jörg Pose (Nathan), Bern Moss (Saladin), and Elias Arens as the arrogant young Templar play out their roles, but their gestures and even declamation of Lessing’s poetic text are riddled with an eccentric, frequently strained, range of comic moves. The shtick at times gives way to the crudest potty humor, as when the Patriarch — (Natali Seelig, outfitted in a grotesque fat suit) — holds his conference with the naive Templar while on the can. And all of this is accompanied by an almost ceaselessly piped-in soundtrack of clownish music, as if these were routines they had performed over and over.
The dramaturgical notes for the production speak loftily of the relation between comedic form and the “supremely serious” content of Lessing’s text. But is Kriegenburg merely underscoring a profoundly cynical understanding of Lessing’s vision as not only a marvelous “fairy-tale” with a “utopian conclusion” but, literally, a farce in the face of historical — and present-day — reality?
Does this explain his avoidance of allusions to gravely serious issues in the news today, to which an “earnest” director would clearly want to relate Lessing’s play — from the refugee crisis to the atrocities of Daesh? Such topical allusions as do appear are treated as jokes.
And yet, in the scene Nathan’s recitation of the famous Ring Parable, the tone changed, perhaps even in spite of the context. Much of the critical reaction I’ve seen has been pretty vehemently negative, but I can’t say my own experience was. At times I was reminded of the eccentric, apocalyptic humor of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, at others of the craziness of Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theater, where iconoclastic absurdity can suddenly trigger a shocking reversal into something profound.
Perhaps it was just the chance to encounter Lessing’s magnificent text again (in English here), however distorted.
—(c)2015 Thomas May — All rights reserved.