The Latvian-American director Yana Ross transposed German playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz’s wordless 1971 Request Concert into a song of loneliness very much of today, in a production at BAM Fisher, October 26 to 29, 2016, featuring the Polish stage and screen star Danuta Stenka in a silent, detailed solo performance. Kroetz was canonized early on as a writer, blessed by the support of the esteemed German publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag. With sparse means his plays can focus awareness on class. Having worked with filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, he became popularly known by acting in a German television series. Though his work is often presented in German-language theaters and has been recognized repeatedly with awards, he is virtually never produced in the U.S. Ross’s production is touring internationally, as are other productions under her hand.
Stenka plays Frau Rasch or Ms. Rasch (she has no first name), a working woman of a certain age, who comes home, alone this night as on all others. Kroetz’s script is entirely a description of her mundane actions; there is no dialogue. The hard irony of Frau Rasch’s evening routine is that she is preparing her apartment and her body for a life that she will not inhabit. She washes her stockings and lays out her clothes for the next workday. She meticulously tidies her kitchen after eating. She cleans the ashtray after smoking. She puts lotion on her hands. She tends a blemish on her face. These actions all misleadingly suggest an optimism that tomorrow might be bearable, as does her little dance while making her frugal evening snack. With the exception of the character’s suicide at the end, all the actions are really performed in real time. As Kroetz instructs: “Stage time should be real time.”
With its task-based script, Request Concert may remind some of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, tightly shot inside a small apartment. The pairing of everyday housework with suicide might also call to mind Marsha Norman’s 1983 play ‘Night Mother.
Ross, who has collaborated with the supremely acerbic Austrian Nobel Prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek, made two significant and successful choices for Request Concert. As she explained when she took the stage before the play began, the audience was free to sit in the balcony, which runs narrowly along three sides of the space, or to remain on the same level as the tidy platform stage, outfitted with all the meager amenities of Frau Rasch’s tiny home. Ross encouraged the attendees to stand and to roam, though as usual, despite such instructions, the audience preferred to sit. Some attendees who had butted heads over the free-form seating got into a heated argument afterward.
The view from the balcony, rather like that in an operating theater, perfectly fit this play about observation of the mundane. Each of Stenka’s actions was clearly visible from an impersonal surveillance angle. The delicacy and concentration of her restrained performance could be easily appreciated from above.
On the floor the view was occasionally blocked, or there was a distracting person scratching his belly or searching through her handbag on the other side of the platform. Still, the intensity of the collective, huddled observation had a strong experiential power, especially the quiet attention of the crowd gathered inches away from Frau Rausch’s lonely ending.
In another significant choice, Ross substituted The Sims, a computer simulation game, for one of the last actions in Kroetz’s script. Kroetz describes Frau Rasch knitting a rug that she puts away as finished at the end. Ross’s Frau Rasch is making her perfect life online while her circumstances offer little hope for such a future. The Sims visualization on her screen reproduces the actual Ikea furniture visible in her apartment, right down to shape, placement and color: there’s no mistaking the substitution. Later, when she retires to bed, she peruses an Ikea catalogue, instead of the book indicated in Kroetz’s script. A boyfriend/lover/husband figure keeps her company in her fantasy home: this is the freeze frame where the game ends. The game is a bit obvious; nonetheless, it successfully updates the play and allows a glimpse inside this mute character. The substitution also connects to another embedded media element in the play, the radio program of the title.
The radio concert program got a local voice, NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro. Shapiro reads “listeners'” letters that recount nauseatingly cheerful, clichéd stories about falling in love and happy coincidences. Like The Sims, the radio gives Frau Rasch an absurdly idealized fantasy world in which she participates vicariously. Easy-listening pop songs like Elton John’s “Rocket Man” follow the letters.
The play rides on the audience reading the clues about this existence without its principal speaking; only the painful cheerfulness of the radio announcer’s patter talks plainly, and by way of counterpoint. The specificity of the actions, as Stunka executed them with careful authenticity, only once permitting the underlying pathos to erupt, prevented the sad life portrayed from being generic.
“Whatever external details are changed … the sense of despair and loneliness implicit in the lifestyle of the central character must remain,” Kroetz wrote in 1971 about how the play could be updated in future productions.The squalor and lack of self-esteem, the utter hopelessness of this frighteningly small life, is most vividly portrayed in one gesture almost at the end of the play. Frau Rasch uses her shirt to wipe up a spill, the unwashed shirt she changed into on coming home, the one she will wear to her death. Though she does not vocalize, Frau Rasch speaks on behalf of those voiceless souls in contemporary society who feel lost, purposeless, alone and unconnected. It is a political and very human voice.
Request Concert was produced by Laznia Nowa Theater in association with TR Warszawa and Divine Comedy International Theatre Festival and co-presented by the Polish Cultural Institute New York.