MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Akropolis Performance Lab Serves Up Genet’s Subversive The Maids

Emily Testa as Solange in Jean Genet’s The Maids Mark Jared Zufelt/Aether Images
“Did I put on this dress to hear you sing about my beauty? Shroud me with hatred! Insults! Sputum!”

Even the process of booking an evening with Akropolis Performance Lab (APL) differs from the routine. There’s an aura of mystery to requesting an invitation to its current production of The Maids/The Vexations, which is under way until 24 November. The venue remains undisclosed until you’ve committed to actually attending.

Once arrived, you enter a room that’s been artfully converted into an almost uncomfortably intimate performance space — big enough to accommodate the three cast members required for Jean Genet’s play, an audience of 10-12 people tops, a piano, and a little bar. The aura is a blend of speakeasy and adventurous cabaret. A wall of mirrors serves as part of the set design, multiplying the spectators and actresses.

It all reinforces the hyper-self-consciously surreal atmosphere of APL’s remarkable interpretation. Jean Genet’s bold, one-act drama from 1947 (Les Bonnes en français) — his first play to be staged in Paris — was inspired by a real-life crime story that became the equivalent of clickbait news in 1933, when two sisters who were live-in French maids murdered their employer’s wife and daughter. But the very premise of a solid connection to “reality” at the most essential level — the sense of a real, authentic self — is subverted throughout the play, turning Hamlet’s sarcastic/melancholy “‘Seems,'” madam? Nay, it is; I know not ‘seems'” on its head.

Directed and designed by Joseph Lavy, APL’s production brings the point home by appending a preludial pantomime in which the three cast members, dressed in lingerie, strike varying exaggerated poses, interacting but interchangeable, prepared to shift roles on a dime.

And, on top of this, there’s a musical layer: the show actually begins with Zhenya Lavy — with Joseph, cofounding artistic director of APL — taking her place at the aforementioned piano and playing the enigmatic, sphinx-like harmonies of Erik Satie’s The Vexations: once, again, thrice, and over and over, through the pantomime, through the duration of the play.

Satie’s undated, single-page score (which has been variously described as an anti-Ring cycle and a kind of spell to get past a love gone sour) comes with the instruction “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” That total number of repetitions lasted over 18 hours when John Cage famously staged a presentation, but even at a fraction of that, Zhenya Lavy established a mood of archaic yet ironic ritual that perfectly suited the ritualistic anti-realism of Genet’s theater.

The play itself unfolds amid the accoutrements of the unnamed Madame’s wealth (or, at least, comfortably bourgeois lifestyle), as the maids Claire and Solange take turns rewriting the script of servitude, of mistress and servant. In the process, they enact rituals of domination and humiliation in all its connotations: sexual, political, social, religious.

Their shared, mutual fantasies of mutiny and sadomasochistic reversal climax in a plan to murder Madame with sleeping pill-laced tea, which will also solve the problem of her lover’s suddenly impending appearance, out on bail — after he had been denounced by Claire to the police and jailed.

Joseph Lavy also translated Genet’s text into an English that conveys the curious mixture of poetic filtering and religious ritual central to Claire’s and Solange’s game-playing (or is it even a game?) — aspects that get lost in more pointedly political renditions of the work on the English stage. Madame is also referred to as a kind of medieval “my lady” and, with her flowers and beautiful attire — briefly offered as gifts — creating a Madonna-like aura of reverence.

As Claire, Annie Paladino is spellbinding and dangerous, her ability to enter fully into each role as convincing as the speed with which she sheds one skin for the next. Her older sister, Solange, is given a complex, layered, deeply resonant performance by Emily Testa. One surprise of the casting is the youth of Madame (the excellent Catherine Lavy), which erases the generational distance between the characters and underscores the riddling interchangeability of identities.

All three are coached in APL’s characteristic focus style of ensemble-focused training, a refreshing, much-needed antidote to the default, watered-down “method” that dominates commercial theater and media. This company offers a wonderful, praiseworthy alternative to such predictable and formulaic theater-making.

Review (c) 2018 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Akropolis Performance Lab, review, theater, Uncategorized

Frank Castorf at Berliner Ensemble

For his first major post-Volksbühne production in Berlin, Frank Castorf has staged a version of Les Misérables at the Berliner Ensemble. It inaugurates a new relationship with BE, which itself is now its first season under Oliver Reese (following the quarter-century tenure of Claus Peymann).

Castorf brings his signature approach to Victor Hugo’s epic (whether in the full c. eight-hour “director’s cut” or “shortened” to a six-hour staging), blending characters and narrative threads from the novel with oblique references to Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s portrait of pre-revolutionary Cuba in Tres Tristes Tigres to generate a montage-like dream state of non-linear associations. The connection with the barricades of the 1848 Revolution in Paris has to do with Hugo’s pronounced support of Cuban freedom fighters.

The usual Castorf technical apparatus plays a central role: close-up real-time filming of the actors projected onto a large screen, using a fantastically lit rotating stage representing a Cuban cigar factory facade, a market stall, a sort of storage area, and a watchtower.

Excesses of physical exertion, emotion, reaction punctuate the theatrical rhythm to overwhelming, at times stupefying, effect. The most indelible performance of many highlights for me came from 85-year-old Jürgen Holtz, playing both Marius’ grandfather–in a nearly-half-hour-long opening monolog on the metaphoric sewers of Paris–and Bishop Myriel. Holtz’s portrayal of the latter’s compassion as an agent of social justice is theater at its most compelling.

Filed under: Frank Castorf, theater

Krapp’s Last Tape

Getting in the mood for Beckett tonight at Edinburgh International Festival.

And companion piece Not I:

 

Filed under: theater

August Wilson’s Birthday

One of our very greatest playwrights would have turned 72 today.  He was only 60 when he died in Seattle in 2005.

From the New York Timesappreciation of August Wilson’s legacy:

In dialogue that married the complexity of jazz to the emotional power of the blues, he also argued eloquently for the importance of black Americans’ honoring the pain and passion in their history, not burying it to smooth the road to assimilation. For Mr. Wilson, it was imperative for black Americans to draw upon the moral and spiritual nobility of their ancestors’ struggles to inspire their own ongoing fight against the legacies of white racism.

And from the Paris Review in 1999, Wilson’s response to the question, “If you had to construct an imaginary playwright, with what qualities would you endow him or her?”

Honesty. Something to say and the courage to say it. The will and daring to accomplish great art. Craft. Craft is what makes the will and dating work and allows playwrights to shout or whisper as they choose. A painter who has not mastered line and form, mass, perspective and proportion, who does not understand the values and properties of color, is not going to produce interesting paintings no matter the weight and measure of his heart, or the speed and power of his intellect. I don’t think you can ever know too much about craft. So I would give your imaginary playwright a solid understanding of craft. All that is necessary then is ambition . . . which is as valid and valuable as anything else.

Filed under: American artists, August Wilson, theater

Brecht on Stage

Filed under: Brecht, theater

RIP Edward Albee (1928-2016)

Another great artist of our time is gone. From the New York Times obituary:

“All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done,” he said in the 1991 Times interview. “I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.”

Jeff Lunden for NPR:

“You know, if anybody wants me to say it, in one sentence, what my plays are about: They’re about the nature of identity,” he said. “Who we are, how we permit ourselves to be viewed, how we permit ourselves to view ourselves, how we practice identity or lack of identity.”

From Playbill:

His home in Manhattan was in a loft in a former egg warehouse in TriBeCa, which he bought long before the neighborhood became trendy. Always interested in art, he filled it with large African and pre-Columbian sculpture and abstract paintings.

Several years ago, before undergoing extensive surgery, Mr. Albee penned the following note to be issued at the time of his death: “To all of you who have made my being alive so wonderful, so exciting and so full, my thanks and all my love.”

 

Filed under: Edward Albee, theater

New Season, New Intendant at Luzerner Theater

luzerner-theater

Luzerner Theater transformed into a space inspired by Shakespeare’s Globe: iamge by David Röthlisberger

Lucerne Festival isn’t the only arts organization to have introduced major leadership changes this year: down the Bahnhofstrasse from the KKL and the train station, the 39-year-old Peter von Benedikt  has just begun his tenure as new Intendant of the Luzerner Theater (aka Stadttheater Luzern).

The original 19th-century institution opened in 1839 with (what else?) Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell. The Luzerner Theater now ranks as the oldest still-operating repertory theaterin Switzerland (offering a varied season of opera, ballet, plays, etc.).

After being gutted by a fire in 1924, the theater reopened in 1929; it has been renovated since — including in a recent rethink for von Benedikt’s first season. Among his plans are experimentation with new spaces, new reconfigurations of the theater.

The native Kölner von Benedikt arrives with impressive credentials and has a notable passion for opera. He was part of the directing team for the world premiere of Péter Eötvös’ operatic treatment of Angels in America, and in 2011 he won the Deutscher Theaterpreis Der Faust as best director in the music theater category for his staging of Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza 1960.

Nono was von Benedikt’s choice as well to open his first season with a new production of the Italian composer’s  Prometeo: A Tragedy of Listening from 1984 — talk about challenging your audience!

The choice is also unusual in terms of the relatively small space (400-plus seats) for a work that’s encountered (when it is encountered live) mostly in concert halls. For this production von Benedikt had the theater reorganized to mimic the multi-level Globe theater of Shakespeare’s day — and to encourage an intimate, “egalitarian” experience of Nono’s remarkable, one-of-a-kind music theater.

More from the company’s description:

Die Komposition handelt zwar von Prometheus, der aber nicht als Figur, sondern als Prinzip vertreten ist. Nono setzt dem Vorwärtsstreben, der Fortschrittsgläubigkeit desjenigen, der in der Mythologie den Menschen das Feuer bringt, das Langsame, Leise, das Unspektakuläre entgegen.

Nono und sein Librettist Cacciari benutzen Texte von u.a. Aischylos, Rilke oder Benjamin, die jedoch nur fragmentiert und in verschiedenen Sprachen präsentiert werden. Man soll sie nicht verstehen, sondern ihr Inhalt bildet den Hintergrund für etwas, was wir erahnen, erspüren mögen.

Sie umkreisen auf höchst abstrakte, dichterische Weise Fragen wie: Wie autonom ist der Mensch? Oder aus der Sicht der Antike formuliert: Wie ist das Verhältnis von den Götter und den Menschen. Was ist Bestimmung, was Schicksal, haben wir aus der Geschichte gelernt, gibt es im 20. Jahrhundert noch Utopien oder leben wir in einer Zeit, in der die Hoffnung auf Veränderung erloschen ist.

 

Filed under: theater

Common Ground at Maxim Gorki

Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater launched its season last night with a reprise of the acclaimed Yael Ronen production Common Ground

Exploring with the aftermath of the fall of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, it’s the kind of ensemble piece that Gorki has made a signature.

Reviewing n earlier version of the work-in-progress two years ago, critic Anne Peter noted:

Ronens Theater weiß es nie besser und hält sich nicht heraus. Sein Trumpf ist Selbstironie. Immer befragt es auch die eigene Perspektive, stößt sich und uns auf unsere eigenen Widersprüche, ohne dabei mit irgendeiner “richtigen” Haltung vor unserer Nase umherzuwedeln. Kaum der Rede wert, dass bei dieser vom Publikum ausgiebig bejubelten Premiere noch nicht alles wie am Schnürchen lief, mancher Satz verhaspelt wurde. In einer Zeit, in der Europa auseinanderdriftet und sich entsolidarisiert, populistischer Nationalismus vielerorts erschreckend hoch im Kurs steht und die Ukraine ganz konkret vor einer möglichen Teilung steht, beschert uns Yael Ronen einen brennend wichtigen Abend.

If anything, Common Ground is proving even more relevant for the Europe of 2016.

 

Filed under: Maxim Gorki Theater, theater

Harold Pinter on Samuel Beckett

Filed under: Harold Pinter, playwrights, theater

Faust on the Brain

I’m still digesting Akropolis Performance Lab’s recent productionEcce Faustus, which is now tangling in my head with Mahler’s Eighth. I need to sort this out.

 

 

 

Filed under: Mahler, theater, themes

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