Friday evening saw the English Theatre Berlin’s staged reading of Informed Consent by Deborah Zoe Laufer. The play centres around genetic anthropologist Jillian (Jill Holwerda), who has inherited the gene variant for early onset Alzheimer’s disease from her mother.
Jillian is desperate to find a cure before she succumbs to the disease. She witnessed the demise of her own mother, and although she is fearful of losing herself, she is most concerned about protecting her daughter from the same thing. In her belief that science has the answers, Jillian appears overzealous and unstable. At work, she claims that science will one day make humans immortal, while at her daughter’s princess parties, she convinces fellow parents to submit their DNA to research.
So it is no surprise that when Jillian takes over a project from a social anthropologist, which gives her access to the DNA of a Grand Canyon tribe of Native Americans in order test their susceptibility to diabetes, she oversteps her boundaries. Jillian tests for all sorts of other things too and although she finds no genetic connection to diabetes, she does discover that the tribe originally migrated from Siberia. This contradicts the tribe’s own origin myth of springing from the Grand Canyon and creates a social and political quandary that the white scientist cannot possibly fathom.
For Jillian, there is only one story; the story of science – the greatest story of all. In her attempt to hold on to her identity, Jillian must confront the question of what makes us, us. Is it our DNA or is it the stories we tell ourselves?
In the end, this story is about a battle of stories. But the play suffers from a battle of stories itself. The question of informed consent – the play’s title and a fascinating concept that sprung from the Nuremberg code, after the Nazis conducted scientific experiments on unwilling subjects, becomes muddled with the story of Jillian’s home life, and the politics of Native American tribes in the US. Ultimately, the issue at the centre of the play – and the play itself – becomes confused.
In addition, although Jillian – the white scientist – is presented as a complex character, the representation of the members of the tribe are simplistic and inauthentic to the point of frustration. It is an example of what the play itself is trying to demonstrate – the dangers of one story, or voice trying to dominate all others. In this case, it is the story of a white, liberal playwright.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thomas Ostermeier’s revival of American playwright Lillian Hellman’sThe 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…
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.
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.
Impro Embassy is a fresh and funny English-language show at Ratibor Theatre that takes place the first Thursday of every month.
I 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.
Having recently seen Public Enemy at the Young Vic in London, I was keen to see what Berlin’s famous Schaubühne would make of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play.
Ibsen’s play is about a spa town’s chief medical examiner, Dr Thomas Stockmann, who discovers that the town’s baths are toxic. He attempts to publicise his findings, expecting praise, but ends up being labelled an enemy of the people by his mayoral brother, the town’s businessmen, and ultimately the town’s people, who all profit from the baths, leading Stockmann to declare that the majority is wrong, and the public itself is the enemy.
Thomas Ostermeier’s production brings the play to a modern setting.
Indeed, Ibsen’s play could be a mirror for our times of economic crises and environmental issues such as fracking.
However, giving the play a contemporary setting is problematic; with social media and the Internet, it is hard to see why Stockmann is battling to get his findings published in the town’s small paper and calling town meetings when he could achieve his goal with the click of a button.
While, on the one hand, the play does not address its modernity enough, it goes too far in its re-writing of Stockmann’s climactic speech at the town meeting, littering it with contemporary references from Ritalin to the economic crisis to sports shoe slogans. It’s too much, causing the scene to lose its power and the play to lose its original unity.
Furthermore, in the town meeting scene, the lights in the auditorium are turned on and the audience are encouraged to interact in the debate, resulting in a loss of tension and momentum when it should be at its highest. I can appreciate the idea, but inevitably, the people who voice their opinions at these things are either schoolkids or opinionated idiots and their words becoming part of the text causes further fragmentation.
Stefan Stern, who plays Stockmann, seems to completely step out of character during this entire session, before taking up his impassioned speech once again, thereby dissipating the play’s energy and obliterating our suspension of disbelief.
The decision to portray Stockmann as a young man in this production is interesting. He only has a baby (which we see at the beginning of the play, and then mysteriously disappears, never to be seen or mentioned again), not a grown daughter and two sons as in the original. This makes his naivety understandable, but Stern lacks the youthful zeal one would expect. Nick Fletcher, who played Stockmann in The Young VIc’s production, had more energy, and that production rose to a frenzy, whereas this play started well and petered out towards the end.
Have you been seeing posters like this all over Berlin? Wondering what it’s all about? Guest-blogger Pat O´Day investigated…
The New York-based experimental theatre company Nature Theater of Oklahoma is in Berlin for the Foreign Affairs Festival. The critics love them. I remember having seen one of their shows at a different festival some five years ago. It was the remake of a Rambo movie shot in the apartment of the sole actor, who played along on stage.
The origin of the company’s name comes from Kafka´s incomplete first novel Amerika, in which a company of the same name promises employment for everybody. Repeating this promise to the citizens of Berlin, anyone interested could come along for an interview at a set date. More than 120 people turned up.
While people waited to be interviewed, cameras swarmed around them and a cast member drew their portraits. She did not look at the drawings at any point during the process. Therefore, it was not surprising that some bore only a slight resemblance to their subjects, but rather turned out skewed and cross-eyed as if they had been inspired by Picasso´s Weeping Woman series.
Then we had some one-on-one time with a video camera. It was not quite Andy Warhol´s fifteen minutes of fame. We had four minutes and twelve seconds to spontaneously answer questions about ourselves and what we thought the company could do for Berlin. It almost felt like a regular job interview.
I received an email the next day, inviting me to return to the venue an hour later. The organisers must have just told everybody who went through the process to come back. They could not possibly have found the time to watch all those casting videos, which will also provide footage for upcoming art projects.
During their time in Berlin, the company are staging shows almost every night, most of which are based on almost 16 hours of a cast member’s phone conversation recordings. As well as this, they are putting on two marathon events of up to fifteen hours, during which food prepared by the crew will be served, creating a completely new stage production, and making a feature-length film from scratch in a matter of weeks. Tickets have already been sold for both events. Other projects comprise a remake of Warhol´s unwatchable eight-hour slow motion documentary Empire as an animation film, and a collective diary on the whole creative process of the Berlin stint.
The organisers, dependent on the support of volunteers who can commit to several hours each day, admitted being scared of not achieving everything in time. It’s not just skills-based tasks on offer, like video-editing, providing backing vocals and setting up podcasts in the theatre foyer. According to the company, seemingly mundane tasks such as food-shopping, greeting people and ushering could be turned into art just by having somebody record these activities.
For the first day of serious work, we set out to make a music video clip featuring all volunteers, which was to be an integral part of the film. There were about forty to fifty of us. Most volunteers were in their 20s and 30s, with a fair share of internationals and people with backgrounds in the performing arts – and a female preponderance. Some volunteers looked as if they had just fallen out of their beds. The female director probably did not want to create this impression by keeping her curlers in till midday in order to maintain her somewhat weird hairstyle.
Warm up exercises began in the courtyard of the theatre. It was still a bit chilly, but when people started doing jumping jacks, they took off extra layers of clothing. The warm up culminated in dancing along to a piece of choreography intended for the video clip. It had everybody moving in sync like gingerbread men, wiggling bottoms while getting down and up again, pumping the air, hopping while turning, and pretending to be cheeky chickens stepping out of water. People took it seriously though, and tried to follow the lead as best as possible while leaving enough space for the cameras.
Next, the director tried to figure out how to shoot the whole seven minute clip without any cuts. He experimented with ways of getting people to move behind his (this time imaginary) camera as soon as they had passed so that he could find and record them in different places again. It was more about moving the crowd and dividing flows of people than guiding people individually. Personally, I found it rather tedious to pace up and down the courtyard dozens of times. Some people developed individual mannerisms and personal routines, which the director neither encouraged nor sanctioned. Perhaps it was still too early for him to be concerned about these minor aspects.
After a short break we practiced the dance we had tried during the warm up. This time it was more serious. In harmony with company policy, a different person, who normally acts as production manager, took the lead. He was not yet familiar with the moves though. So he taught and learned the choreography at the same time. Some exceptional female volunteers, who had managed to remember the routine from the warm up, were able to correct him. These ladies were also eager to discuss specific details and suggest changes. Unused to this kind of activity, I was happy to just follow along. New difficulties surfaced when the choreography, which for whatever reason we had first practiced to a waltz, was carried out to the original quadruple time song. Again, the ladies mentioned above knew how to adjust. For my own part, I was not too disappointed when this activity finally stopped.
During the break, some people were picked to help set up a vegetarian buffet for everybody. While waiting, we all received free T-shirts with the company logo. Individuals with specific skills, like video editing, were singled out to have their tasks set out. Others used the break to practice the group choreography and take notes. I left.
So what remained at the end of the day? Or rather, who would have profited and who would have loathed it? The experience certainly would have been a nightmare for anybody suffering from camera shyness. Conversely, it would have been perfect for somebody in need of a watertight alibi with cameras constantly pointed at them.
But what did it mean? On the surface it was an unusual day in the sun. We could do callisthenic exercises and recharge our batteries with free healthy food in friendly company. Although the organizers applied a non-authoritarian leadership style, they did not provide space for differing views. It was not about the volunteers rising to stardom or expressing individual creativity in the artistic process. Nor was there too much of an intellectual challenge, unless you find it in sorting out your dancing steps.
And then I have also been taught that there is no such thing as a free lunch, which may also be true for free T-shirts. I wonder how and where the recorded material will turn up. Most of all, I wonder how this atmosphere of creative chaos can give rise to anything worth watching in such a comparatively short period of time, that both critics and audiences might appreciate. Maybe this is reason enough to monitor the projects’ progress and see where everybody’s enthusiasm originates from and whether it is justified.