When you open your festival with a three-hour stream-of-consciousness deluge of text, tragedy, and water, what can possibly follow? The Theatertreffen’s answer: Bring in its opposite. Der Biberpelz (The Beaver Coat), the second invited production in the program, is an 80-minute comedy directed by the darling of this year’s Theatertreffen, the twice–invited Herbert Fritsch. But what is the thesis of this Jelinek/Beier antithesis?
Herbert Fritsch makes no secret of his primary motivation as a director: During the Theatertreffen press conference, in interviews with Theater heute, our bloggers, and more, he is fond of saying that directing, for him, is about the fun. It is another form of playing — in that special way that the German word for “to play,” spielen, also means “to act.” Fritsch’s Der Biberpelz, invited to this year’s Theatertreffen from the Mecklenburgisches Staatstheater Schwerin, is one big Spiel.
A game would be nothing without its players, and it is indeed the cast of Der Biberpelz that deserves first mention. The Wolff family (Stéphane Maeder’s rock-dumb father Julius, Isa Weiß and Sonja Isemer’s bickering swindlers-in-training Leontine and Adelheid, and Brigitte Peters’ masterminding matriarch Mother Wolffen), their cohorts and antagonists form an ensemble tumbling over itself to top its own impressive intensity, physicality, and speed. With their grotesque grimaces and colorful costumes, the characters might be the rejects of any number of cult movies (where an impressive ensemble performance is also, as a rule, the number one draw). But my favorite character in the play is one that gets no credit in the cast list: the wall. A frenetic color and shape explosion that sent my eyes instinctively searching for a Magic Eye-type pattern, the wall presents the first of many explosions of energy that erupt over the audience during the performance. On the otherwise empty stage, our friendly and lightning-fast wall defines the space, directs our gaze, thrusts actors into the spotlight or hides them from view with a liveliness that endows it with a personality of its own. Thank goodness it, too, gets a bow at the end.
Fritsch leads his cast in a united attack on realism. They fall on Hauptmann’s play, considered one of the archetypes of theatrical naturalism, and make short work of it. Their chorus-style recitations of Hauptmann’s elaborate stage directions, which describe the contents of each room down to the detail of the soft wood of a stool and the cheap pictures in cheaper frames on the walls, echo into a space empty save for the virtuosic wall. Though the characters speak in dialect, their breakneck pace turns the talk of everyday people that is a hallmark of naturalistic drama, into a mad poetry of incomprehensibility that makes Shakespeare sound like a Mother Goose nursery rhyme in comparison. The “Jawoll, Herr Hauptmann!” that bookends the production is an “Aye, aye!” directed, ultimately, not at the playwright, but at Captain Director Fritsch.
And this all works — in a way. Perhaps all too well. Not 8 minutes of the evening’s breathless 80 pass before we catch on. We get the joke. So we move on. We start looking for more. But for all the clarity of joke number one, I found myself not sure where to turn next. I can take any play, turn the people to puppets, turn the dialogue into a deluge, and call it a night. If I want to attack realism in the theatre, there’s an endless supply of plays that I could pick out of a hat. Why this one? Why Der Biberpelz?
I suspect the answer is: Because it’s fun. Because the characters have nasty and unpleasant bits that the ensemble can relish as they play. And they certainly do much relishing. This fun, this playfulness fills the stage with an energy that could be incredibly powerful; but this energy isn’t focused on anything other than the great Spiel. All that fun that the actors are having down there on the stage with their funny faces and dancing wall is ultimately a closed circuit, playing inward, a kind of inside joke that nobody wants to bother with explaining. What’s to explain, after all? Come on, it’s funny!
The onstage energy only comes close to reaching its potential during the neverending curtain call that sends the cast (sadly, sans wall) marching and singing in, through, and around the audience in a final attack on our accepted ritual of closure (they bow, we clap a lot, and we all get to go home). In the final scene, the audience chuckles to see most of the ensemble tied up in a big bundle to be poked, prodded, and interrogated by the head official; moments later, the curtain call traps the audience in their economy class seats, and it’s the ensemble’s turn to provoke.
At least one audience member bit back: Claus Peymann, head of the Berliner Ensemble, stood up and hollered, “Stick to acting, Fritsch!” Fritsch himself remained, figuratively and literally, unmoved: waiting expressionless under the weight of the dancing wall under which his ensemble had trapped him, truncating his bow. After a good five minutes a few audience members freed him and he leapt up to join the hullabaloo, waving his arms and spinning about in his long black coat like a man possessed, or a child playing a game.