Theater meeting in Berlin: What am I without my pain?

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Written By Maya Cantina

The reinvention of the self leads to misfortune in several plays at the Berliner Theatertreffen. One of these is ‘The Fatherless’ by Jette Steckel.

Artists cower in front of a smoking car.

“Extra Life” by choreographer and director Gisèle Vienne performed at the Hans Otto Theater in Potsdam Photo: Estelle Hanania

A story only ends well if I don’t appear in it.” The village school teacher Platonov knows what he is talking about when he says this sentence. Creating chaos is what he is good at, and has been doing so all evening. At this moment he shows the general, a widow, takes off his clothes with feigned reluctance.

Shortly before, he had promised her son’s bride that he would flee this estate with her at midnight. Becoming a new person, starting a new life, getting rid of the past: why does everyone, especially women, expect this from Platonov, this broken existence that celebrates its own failure with narcissistic pleasure?

Platonov is disgusting in production the director Jette Steckelincluding “The Fatherless”, a tragicomedy by Anton Chekhov from the Kammerspiele in Munich, to the theater meeting in Berlin was invited. With malicious humor he rubs salt in the wounds of others, hidden under false compliments.

Joachim Meyerhoff plays this role as if these lines have just occurred to him, as if he were improvising on stage, occasionally involving the audience in his reflections on the general decline. And yes, what can you say? In the audience of the Berliner Festspiele you can hardly avoid laughing and giggling at this cynic and his delight in insults.

Behind everything lies desperation

On this evening the theater can be light and funny, but you know that behind everything there is desperation. You should be able to change, but no one can. Wiebke Puls plays the general who, hungry for life, finally wants to leave this village, but without a job and as a widow she cannot imagine doing so without a husband. And yet she seems so beautiful and strong and her need for help is just a mistake.

The evening lasts a bit long at over three hours. But it still delivers something that Theatertreffen people hope for: experiencing great ensembles from other cities in Berlin. Having a theater classic translated into a language that seems to have just been picked up on the street. With brief glimmers of doubt about the meaning of the entire undertaking.

Director Jette Steckel, born in Berlin in 1982, has received many awards for her productions. In ‘The Fatherless’ she shows what theater can do and also emphasizes where art takes a bit of a backseat.

That which is buried deep within the body

‘Extra Life’ by the choreographer and director was of a completely different temperature and temperament Gisele Vienne, a co-production of her company with many theaters and festivals. The Viennese theater is something of a therapeutic experiment. She explores her own ways of predicting what cannot be shown, what cannot be told, what is hidden deep within the body.

“Extra Life” performed at the Hans Otto Theater in Potsdam. There’s a car on stage. Siblings sitting in it talking after a party. In the beginning it is the text in which injuries from the past flash by. Explanations for failures and addiction problems. Was there an abusive uncle? Is it about childhood abuse?

Brother and sister listen to a story about aliens on the radio. Why is it easier to talk about aliens stealing children than about the perpetrators in your own family? This angers the young woman; she feels left alone. This is evident from the conversation. But also how other stories, imaginative avoidance maneuvers, are placed on top of the suffering.

The dialogues are something like the flight path to a production, which then tells about disruptions and shifts in perception, especially with body language, with light and fog, with creepy dolls and creepy music. Especially in the perception of oneself. About the loss of self-confidence and self-certainty. This is something of a horror trip, an extremely slow fall.

On the edges of the theater

Gisèle Vienne’s productions are associated with many festivals, but she came to the Theatertreffen for the first time. Balancing between dance, performance and language, her pieces shine on the edges of the theater. But Vienne is well established on the European stage there.

“Giant in Middle-earth” promised a celebration of the joy of gaming T.M“to become a farewell party that… Nicholas Stemann in his last season as director at the Schauspielhaus Zürich together with including Theater Hora from Zurich and with Das Helmi Poppentheater (from Berlin). Cora Frost is also involved.

The material is based on Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” told by both avowed fans of the fantasy saga and fellow players who don’t care for Tolkien. It is a vibrant installation, with many artists, musicians, animals and foam monsters, large screens to follow what is happening on the other side of the hall, many processions through the space in which artists and audiences mingle.

However, the hall was simply a little too full when it was implemented in Berlin at the House of the Berliner Festspiele. Instead of being able to study the lovingly decorated islands in the set, you were often trying to avoid a ship full of dwarves and elves, trying to get a view between your shoulders and not getting in the way of the theater.

Nevertheless, the collective story of the various ensembles was enjoyable, including the explanations about the orcs and the doubts about the admissibility of the clear attributions of evil.

Stopped right at the beginning

What does the past mean? This is one of the questions that can connect the invited pieces. In Chekhov’s case, the search for the New Man turns out to be nonsense, which can slow you down from the start because you cannot meet your high expectations.

For Gisèle Vienne, the past has left behind traumas that the protagonists never want to come to terms with themselves. In “Bucket List”, a musical by Yael Ronen & Shlomi Shaban, with which the Berlin Schaubühne was invited to the theater meeting, a company is working to free people from traumatic memories. For example, about unhappy loved ones.

This is being sold as a utopia. But it soon turns out to be a profound devastation. When grief and pain, loss and grief, are subtracted from the ego, is there anything left but a soulless automaton, strange and slippery?

Yael Ronen’s production has it all. The characters locate the story privately; But the set design, in which white clothing continues to rain down from above, also suggests the story of a collective that has a procession of dead people behind it.

Shlomi Shaban’s music is rich in melodies, soothing and lively; But the lyrics are often sarcastic, bitter, ironic. You glide through this evening with dual feelings, with linguistic, visual, acoustic and choreographic information often moving in different directions.

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