“Dionysus City,” directed by Christopher Rüping, Munich Kammerspiele, photo by Julian Baumann

The 56th Theatertreffen in Berlin presented the “ten best” German-language productions of 2018 for a three-week festival in May. Selected by a panel of critics, the plays sourced material and techniques from film, novels, and stage technology, as well as Brecht, and ancient Greek theater, for a wide range of experiences and quality.

By far the best was Münchner Kammerspiele’s ten-hour “antiquity project” Dionysos Stadt, or “Dionysian City,” by Christopher Rüping. Combining the stories of Prometheus, the Trojan war, Iphigenia, and the Oresteia, it began with a friendly introduction by one of the actors, explaining to the audience how the ten hours would run: food would be provided in the first intermission; the audience could come onstage during the first act to smoke; the second act would be especially long (so it was advised to use the bathroom during the first break) and painfully loud –– but please don’t stop up your ears; two actors would suddenly jump into the audience, to be passed laterally to the back of the auditorium, as in a rock concert; and the audience would be invited onstage in the fourth part to celebrate a wedding, complete with free ouzo. The same actor polled the audience to see how many people would stay for the full ten hours (offering 50 Euros to a specific audience member who had indicated she would leave). Performed in contemporary costumes on a stage whose workings were fully exposed, the production successfully created a temporary community of the theatergoers, as in the multiday theater festivals in ancient Athens, seducing the audience with superb acting, free food, wit, and lively video projections, and diving into the weighty themes that have made these stories timeless. Will humankind destroy itself with its own technology, the gift of fire from Prometheus? Does war (Troy) have a real winner or are all parties damaged by violence and hatred? How do we find hope for the future when times are so grim? These questions follow the collective of humanity through history.

Similar questions were addressed within a far different context: a talk two days later by novelist, screenwriter, and dramatist Ulrich Peltzer. Part of the Heiner Müller Salon at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, the talk thoughtfully considered the ideological conflicts of the 20th century that informed Müller’s work, asking if and how media such as film, theater, and literature could effectively play a political role at all and especially now, with authoritarianism and racism surging in Germany, the United States, and around the world.

“Hotel Strindberg“ directed by Simon Stone, Burgtheater Wien / Theater Basel, photo by Sandra Then

Back at Theatertreffen, the excellent Hotel Strindberg intermingled the tales of several couples in a kind of collective storytelling. Written and directed by Simone Stone and co-produced with the Burgtheater of Vienna and Theater Basel, the play took place in a set modeled on a hotel, with rooms stacked on top of each other. The script pulled from various obscure August Strindberg plays, as well as Strindberg’s life story. As in Miss Julie, Strindberg’s most produced play, which is about the sexual relationship between a male servant and the daughter of the house in which he works, Strindberg’s all-too-obvious sexual fantasies and his experiences with women seemed to result in humiliation, subjugation, and loneliness.

In Hotel Strindberg, the psychopathology of Strindberg’s interactions with women is reflected in the deeply unhappy relations of different couples, all of whom are breaking up in nasty ways: divorce, possible homicide, or rape as the last act in a marriage. The couples suffer the consequences of rampant infidelity and emotional neglect. As one character says to his former wife, “Look what you’ve done to me”; she replies, “No, you did that to yourself.” The men, interestingly, find each other more sympathetic. Contained within many mini-stages (the hotel rooms), scenes proceeded simultaneously, with some overlapping dialogue.

Across town at the Volksbühne, one of Berlin’s major theaters, in a program called “Passagen,” evoking Walter Benjamin’s massive Passagenwerk, French theorist and author Hélène Cixous spoke about her longstanding feminism and its evolutions over her lifetime. She speculated on the future of feminism and gender identity, when asked by the audience. As the transgender phenomenon and the #metoo movement gain momentum, she discussed the ways in which new generations formulate their own ideologies for their own historical contexts.

“She She Pop” HAU Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin, a production of She She Pop in co-production with HAU Hebbel am Ufer, Festival Theaterformen, Münchner Kammerspiele, Schauspiel Stuttgart, Kaserne Basel, Schauspiel Leipzig, Kampnagel Hamburg, Künstlerhaus Mousonturm, FFT Düsseldorf, Konfrontacje Teatralne Festival Lublin and ACT Independent Theater Festival Sofia, photo by Benjamin War

The theater collective She She Pop also took on social issues with its Oratorium, modeled on Brecht’s Lehrstücke. Like Brecht’s similar works, the Oratorium was designed to be performed by nonprofessional actors and to be instructive about social problems, with nameless characters representing types –– for example, the writer, the heir, the homeowner. The performers included some of She She Pop’s own ensemble as well as members of the public, and the audience was also asked to speak dialogue, sing, and hum. The topic was of collective relevance: the problem of private ownership as it affects the right to housing. As in New York and other major cities, housing prices have skyrocketed in Berlin, displacing many longtime residents. Costumed in robes converted from flags, which earlier in the show were used as props, and accompanied by a music ensemble of two, playing the xylophone and trumpet, the Oratorium brought to life very real problems about the nature of private ownership and inequality.

“Endless Fun” directed by Thorsten Lensing, Sophiensæle, Berlin, a production by Thorsten Lensing in co-production with Schauspiel Stuttgart, Schauspielhaus Zurich, Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen, Kampnagel Hamburg, Theater im Pumpenhaus Münster, HELLERAU – European Center for the Arts, Künstlerhaus Mousonturm, Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg and Sophiensæle, photo by David Baltzer / Agency Zenit

The staged version of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was titled in German Unendlicher Spaß, or “endless fun,” which does not describe my experience of the show. Translating a quirky 1500-page novel that contains many outdated American cultural references into German is tricky in itself; adapting such a monster for the stage presents additional challenges. Its self-involved characters, drug users and alcoholics, suffer from debilitating nervous disorders and depression. The production felt like a four-hour Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and indeed much of what was presented from the novel explicitly copied the AA meeting format: a character stood and introduced him- or herself by name and then confessed to addiction, bad behavior, evil thoughts, and a general sense of worthlessness with a side of suicidal tendencies, while the others on stage mumbled support or acted out their own inability to behave in a remotely sociable way. The bare stage and institutional chairs like in a school classroom reinforced the AA meeting feel. The performance text remained very much a novel, as characters delivered long monologues (though on occasion they did address each other). Social status, family issues, addiction, and economic hardship are common problems, and these are topics well worth exploring. This presentation, however, omitted the public or private context that might have made the characters something more than merely self-involved substance abusers.

Two Theatertreffen productions forewent philosophical, social, and psychological issues to focus on theater technology, specifically stage smoke. One of the Theatertreffen top-ten selections was The Girl from the Fog Machine Factory, a production by Thom Luz and Bernetta Theaterproduktionen, in coproduction with Gessnerallee Zürich, Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne, Kaserne Basel, Internationales Sommerfestival Kampnagel Hamburg, Theater Chur, and Südpol Luzern. The show utilized several devices to produce stage smoke in different configurations: mini-fog machines, fog in an expandable tube to create smoke rings that drew appreciative “ahs” from the audience, and plastic sheeting to create larger clouds of smoke. A line in the play explained, however, that stage technology could only be as good as the story it told, a criterion this production failed to meet. Apart from a brief allusion to a possible love story, the show rested entirely on its technology, which grew less and less interesting as the 80-minute production dragged on. A more engaging use of fog machines was in Fall on Pluto, a Ukrainian production by Sashko Brama and Ensemble, part of the so-called Stückemarkt, a second-tier series in Theatertreffen outside the ten-best selection. It explored old age through the 17th-century Japanese tradition of Bunraku puppetry, in which life-size puppets are manipulated by visible puppeteers on stage, standing behind the puppets. Set in a retirement home, the aged characters spoke of their youth, sometimes nostalgically, sometimes with regret. Despite the vital topic of aging, the Ukrainian-language production was aimless, while the atmospheric stage smoke sometimes obscured the English supertitles, making it impossible to follow.

A brilliant diamond-like set by Jo Schramm was the star of a staged version of Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s eerie, experimental 1966 film in which an actress who has ceased to speak while playing Elektra is tended by a nurse at an island retreat. The nurse and the actress merge and exchange identities, and the film interrupts their story periodically with indecipherable symbols and seemingly unrelated events. In this coproduction by Deutsches Theater Berlin and Malmö Stadsteater, the concave reflective metallic set piece and the water-covered stage rendered dazzling, disorienting images, warping and multiplying the actors and their actions. In the long version that I saw, the entire sequence was performed first in German and then in Swedish, after the characters exchanged personas. Except for the set, though, the production did not measure up to the more mysterious and disturbing film.

Despite their flaws, the Theatertreffen productions I attended showed the continuing strength of German theater, as both an art form and a means of investigating the most important issues of our times.

Paul David Young is a Contributing Editor for PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art (MIT Press). His book newARTtheatre: Evolutions of the Performance Aesthetic, about visual artists appropriating theatre,...