art, Berlin, Life in Berlin, theatre

NippleJesus at the English Theatre Berlin

Last night, NippleJesus, a one-man play based on a short story by Nick Hornby, premiered at the English Theatre Berlin.

The setting was intimate, with chairs arranged in a horseshoe shape around the space where Dave (Jesse Inman) talks about his job as a bouncer, or, as his wife calls him, a security consultant.

NippleJesus
Photo: Casey-Tower, courtesy of the English Theatre Berlin

Dave is a family man. Working class, cockney, no pretensions. Until recently, he worked at a club called Casablanca but after someone jabbed a rusty weapon at him, he quit. His job was just to allow “people to have a good time without fear of arseholes” – nothing worth getting stabbed over.

His new gig is at an art gallery. Dave isn’t sure if he’s ever been inside an art gallery before, and he isn’t sure why they would need a bulky guy like him in one. All becomes clear when he sees the painting he’s supposed to be guarding. It’s a picture of Jesus – beautiful, suffering, realistic – which, upon closer inspection, is revealed to be entirely made of pornographic images of nipples. This is NippleJesus. Dave is shocked, then outraged.

But after studying the picture some more, standing in the same room as it, meeting the artist, and defending it against religious nut jobs, Dave’s interaction with the painting evolves. As his perspective switches, so does our perspective of the art world. How does art affect people? How manipulative is the contemporary art world? What is modern art? Moreover, as Dave’s interaction with the painting deepens, so too does our insight into his character.

Jesse Inman, with his shaved head and stocky build has the right physicality for Dave, and like Hornby’ text, he has the ability to play with the clichés of the character yet hint at something more. He relies on subtle gestures, like the fidgeting of his forefinger and thumb while his hands are clasped behind his back as he talks. Like a bouncer, he only uses his physicality when he needs to.

At times. it was apparent that the piece was adapted from a short story rather than written for the stage, as it lacked a sense of build and dramatic explosion. As always with Hornby, there are laughs to be had – perhaps the biggest is the pay-off for the only two stage props – a tent and an onion – at the end.

A good evening out without fear of arseholes.

NippleJesus is on at the English Theatre Berlin until Saturday 25th July 2015.

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art, Berlin, Life in Berlin, theatre

Impro Embassy featuring Joe Bill and Lee White

Ratibor Theater ended their season of monthly English improv last Thursday with an amusing show featuring Joe Bill and Lee White, with accompanying music by Harry Hawaii.

Impro Embassy with Joe Bill and Lee White at Ratibor Theater
Photo by Sappho Wohlgemuth, courtesy of Ratibor Theater

Special guests Joe Bill (USA) and Lee White (Canada) have been touring Europe with their improv show Paradigm, which varies each time they perform it. The novelty is guaranteed by the audience, who provide prompts. The Berlin audience input included short skirts, a potter, Jurassic Park and mettbrötchen (raw minced pork, seasoned with salt, pepper and chopped onion, on bread)…

Interesting set-ups emerged – an artist with a starving family, a dinosaur in need of a therapist, a love story involving the daughter of a mafioso – although the sketches sometimes felt a bit tired, with the actors repeating lines. Perhaps this was an effect of having just two people, who were familiar with each other, carrying the show. Harry Hawaii’s musical accompaniment helped to provide accents and pace.

In the second half, however, the actors picked up the original sketches and ran with them. The humor escalated – a Scottish dinosaur-hunter picked up a boomerang to kill the depressed dinosaur, the mafioso murdered everyone in a Finnish McDonald’s because of their so-called ‘New York’ burger, and the starving artist used his skillful hands to make mettbrötchen. Bill and White had found their flow, and the audience were in stitches.

Even the actors’ familiarity with each other paid off. They got personal, and goaded one another (at one point White challenged Bill to bring in each member of a big mafia family to see their dying father, and Bill, feeling the strain after the sixth one, revealed that the rest of the family had been murdered).

As a writer, it was an interesting process to see; ideas start slowly, then characters and stories take on a life of their own. On the other hand, it might just have been the consumption of beer and wine that made things looser.

Apart from a few slip ups (the Scotsman spoke with an Irish accent), the actors demonstrated a good level of craft and creativity and, as always with improv, provided refreshing moments of surprise. Moreover, there was real pleasure in seeing characters recur, stories develop and a pattern – or paradigm – emerge from randomness.

Impro Embassy will continue their monthly high-quality, entertaining improv evenings in English after a summer break, in October.

Berlin, Life in Berlin, theatre

The Little Foxes at Berlin’s Schaubühne

Thomas Ostermeier’s revival of American playwright Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at the Schaubühne begins with a dinner party: A German family, united and happy, entertain an American businessman who promises to make them all very rich. There’s only one problem…

Photo: Arno Declair
Photo: Arno Declair

Brothers Ben and Oscar, who inherited their father’s business, need one more investor for their transatlantic venture. To keep control of the company within the family, they want their sister Regina to convince her sickly husband Horace to be the third investor.

The three siblings are equally ambitious. Ben (played by Moritz Gottwald) is smart, pragmatic and hides his greed with fine talk. Oscar (David Ruland) is not as subtle and, the weakest of the three, has an inferiority complex that manifests itself in his tyrannical abuse of his wife Birdie and son Leo. But Regina (Nina Hoss), whose desire to escape her miserable marriage and the provincial life that her father’s decision not to give her an inheritance has condemned her to, is the most driven of all.

Regina manipulates the people and situations around her with skill, switching from charm to blackmail. Hoss portrays her with ice-queen composure, negotiating percentages and luring her husband home from hospital, but when it becomes clear that Horace has no intention investing, fissures appear. Regina’s brothers hatch a murky plot to get the additional funds, and we realise that once more, Regina is being disempowered by the men around her.

Photo: Arno Declair
Photo: Arno Declair

Indeed, this is a play about women, and the tragic consequences that follow when they are denied self-determination, like Oscar’s aristocratic wife Birdie (Ursina Lardi).

Lardi steals the show with her portrayal of a musically talented woman who has turned to drink, going from breathless enthusiasm to writhing about on a floor – someone whose wings have been clipped by marriage.

But Ostermeier’s decision to move the play from its original 1900 Alabama setting to modern Germany is jarring. It provokes questions such as why do these two women – Regina and Birdie – stay in their marriages? Why does Regina, so intelligent and calculating, not figure out other ways to do what she wants? Why did her father leave her out of her will? While it is believable that maybe one of these things could have happened in a modern German family, as the questions pile up, they interfere with one’s suspension of belief. After all, there is a big difference between the American South over 100 years ago and Germany now.

The skill of the actors distract from these questions of logic and that final moment when Regina stands alone on stage, having gotten what she wants at the cost of her familial relationships, is still potent.

The Little Foxes (Die kleinen Füchse) is on at the Schaubühne, with shows with English surtitles.

art, Berlin, Life in Berlin, theatre

Impro Embassy at Ratibor Theatre

Impro Embassy is a fresh and funny English-language show at Ratibor Theatre that takes place the first Thursday of every month.

Impro Embassy, Ratibor TheatreI went to last Thursday’s performance entitled City Beats. The show featured professional improv actors from different countries – Helena Lindegen (Improvisationsteater, Stockholm), Luisa Schnittert (Die Gorillas, Berlin), David Arcuri (Teatribu, Milan), along with music by Rudy Redl (Die Gorillas, Berlin) and Mike Russell (Black Heritage, Washington D.C) – working together in a unique constellation.

Each player took turns in providing a prompt, either from the audience, a video, song, or a personal tidbit inspired by their city to get the action going. What resulted was a series of entertaining, sometimes surreal, always surprising sketches that took us on a whirlwind journey from a rap performance on the streets of Washington D.C. to breakfast with a suicidal Swedish family.

Mother:     I’ll wake the boys. Larsen! Andersen! Nielsen!
Daughter:  Why did you name us all with surnames? It’s so difficult…

Other sketches included a noirish love story featuring a cat called Snowball, a woman addicted to dressing up as a lizard and scaring Berlin clubbers on their way home in the early hours, and a contemporary movement performance illustrating the life and death of a snowman.

Detective:  I’m looking for this cat.
Woman:     Yes, he is here.
Detective:  That was easier than I thought. This is the first place I have visited.
Woman:     Well, this is the only cat hotel in Poland…It was a good idea.

The actors worked hard to find a tone and sense of narrative in each sketch, aided by the musicians who intuitively provided a score. The creative process was fascinating to watch – affirming the importance of play and rolling with an idea until it turns into a gem – and the evening sparkled.

The most telling piece was one in which each actor spoke only in their native language (Swedish, German and Italian). Through the confusion, they eventually managed to connect with each other and create an engaging, comprehensive story. For me, this is typical Berlin; that on a rainy night in Kreuzberg, people from different places can come together and collaborate despite their differences, to create a special, one-off experience.

The next Impro Embassy entitled Click will be at 20.30, Thursday 5th February 2015 at Ratibor Theater (Cuvrystr. 20a, 10997 Berlin, nearest U-Bahn Schlesisches Tor).

Berlin, theatre

Isaac’s Eye at the English Theatre Berlin

Photo by Magnus Hengge | studio adhoc, courtesy of the English Theatre Berlin
Photo by Magnus Hengge | studio adhoc, courtesy of the English Theatre Berlin

Friday night saw the European premier of Isaac’s Eye – a snappy play tackling the history of science – at the English Theatre Berlin.

Young Isaac Newton desperately wants to become a member of the Royal Society; his older partner Catherine wants to get married and start a family, and the renowned scientist and member of the Royal Society Robert Hooke wants Newton to stop pursuing his work on light.

In Lucas Hnath’s imagining, these three maneuver around each other in an engaging plot involving a sex diary, a man dying of the plague, and an experiment involving the insertion of a needle into the eye…

The play is self-aware, letting the audience know which of its parts are fact and which are fiction via a delightful device in which things that are based on fact are written on one of the multiple blackboards that make up the set. This self-awareness is also manifested in the playful light and sound design.

While the play’s self-reflectiveness takes away any need to simulate a 17th century setting, and results in a fresh, direct approach, it can be clunky at times (I could have done without the act /scene announcements and a few of the “he saids / she saids”).

The actors, however, execute the piece with a strong sense of rhythm and flow; Oskar Brown is straight-backed and serious as the slightly-awkward young Newton, Ben Maddox is energetic as the drug-addled rock star of science Robert Hooke, and Mary Kelly is empathetic as the warm yet weary Catherine.

It’s only after the curtain has gone down and you’ve stopped smiling that you realise how serious the play is, dealing with great minds, personal sacrifice and questions of what’s important in life.

Isaac’s Eye is is on at the English Theatre Berlin (Fidicinstrasse 40, 10965 Berlin; 030 691 1211; U6: Platz der Luftbrücke) until 10th May 2014.

 

Berlin, Life in Berlin, theatre

Schwarz Gemacht at the English Theatre Berlin

Photo by Dragan Simicevic, courtesy of the English Theatre Berlin
Photo by Dragan Simicevic, courtesy of the English Theatre Berlin

Last night was the premier of Schwarz Gemacht, the first play to be developed and produced by the English Theatre Berlin. It’s an exciting choice; a play about identity set in Berlin during the Nazi era.

The story centres around Claus, a black actor who was born in Germany thinks of himself as German. This idea has been explored many times with patriotic German Jewish characters, but I’ve never seen the topic of Afrodeutschers (Afro-Germans) dealt with.

David L. Arsenault’s stark set design, consisting of a mesh of blank pages, signifies as much – these are untold stories. (Helpfully, there is a wonderful exhibition in the theatre lobby about the history of black people in Germany.)

Claus’s idea of his own identity is challenged by his night-time encounters with a jazz musician from the U.S (coolly played by Sadiq Bey) and reflected in the endeavours of a naive American girl to connect with her German roots – prompting a comparison of the treatment of black people in the U.S. and Germany.

However, the play falls short. This was mostly down to the writing. There was too much exposition – clumsily and undramatically done – and after one hour, the drama had barely escalated. Frankly, I was bored after the first half, so I left.

There was a time when I’d see anything through – bad films, books, relationships – just to examine where they were going and how they failed, but I can’t be bothered anymore. If I’ve given you an hour of my time, I’ve given you a fair chance to impress me and hold my attention.

Which brings me to the question; what is happening to theatre? Everything I have seen recently – in London and Berlin – has been mediocre. Either it’s conventional and Hollywood-ised –  as the popular plays that travel tend to be –  or it’s trying to do something different but ignores basic storytelling principles. It’s as if the only nuanced, interesting drama can be seen on TV nowadays.

Anyway, end of rant, off to re-watch Mad Men…

Schwarz Gemacht is on at the English Theatre Berlin (Fidicinstrasse 40, 10965 Berlin; 030 691 1211; U6: Platz der Luftbrücke) until 15th March 2014.

Berlin, Life in Berlin, theatre

The New York Project at TheaterForum Kreuzberg

NYProjectvs_2-01KleinLiving Room Productions is currently staging two plays by New York playwrights Daniel Sauermilch and Barbara Hammond at the TheaterForum Kreuzberg. Each play runs for 45 minutes, with a 15 minute break in between.

Barbara Hammond’s play June Weddings is about two solitary people who meet in a bar in Washington Heights. I got lost on the way to the theatre – as always happens to me in the area around Schlesisches Tor for some reason –  so I missed it.

Nonetheless, here are my impressions from the foyer; a male actor’s voice projected very well; in the beginning, were noises that sounded like doors slamming; later on, a telephone rings; towards the end everything became very quiet. Then there was a big applause. I’ve seem Hammond’s work in Berlin before; she’s a talented writer, so I’m sure the play was grand.

Daniel Sauermilch’s The Rwandans’ Visit is described as Albee meets Polanski, or ”Who is afraid of Carnage?” 

Two couples meet for a drink in an apartment in Prospect Park. One pair has just returned from a ‘life-changing’ trip to Vietnam and the other has been looking after two Rwandan exchange students who have just gone missing.

The characters are pretentious, racist and self-involved, despite thinking themselves liberal, politically correct and philanthropic. The dialogue is witty and it’s good fun watching their evening descend into farce. Yet the play lacks the tension of Albee and Polanski. Probably because the players always feel like characters born of other characters. This may have been the point, but it still left me wanting more. What is the history between these people, and what, apart from the playwright, is keeping them in the same room together?

The New York Project is on at the TheatreForum Kreuzberg tonight and tomorrow night at 20.00.