A Mixed Bag of New Plays in Berlin (Published 2019) (2023)


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A Mixed Bag of New Plays in Berlin (Published 2019) (1)

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By A.J. Goldmann

BERLIN — A Nordic thriller set aboard an ill-fated cruise ship, a chamber drama about social housing in Britain and a furious group show about South American teenagers were among the new works presented at this year’s Festival International for New Drama, or FIND, which will conclude Sunday at the Schaubühne in Berlin.

Joining the 10 invited productions — from, among other places, Brussels, Montreal and Santiago, Chile — were four of the Schaubühne’s own shows, including an electrifying version of Édouard Louis’s novel “A History of Violence” (co-produced by St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, where it is scheduled to play in November). Another of the Schaubühne productions, “Danke Deutschland,” from the Serbian writer-director Sanja Mitrovic, premiered on the festival’s first day.

In it, a mixed cast of Schaubühne actors and other performers, of Vietnamese and Laotian heritage, create a complex portrait of Germany’s ambivalent and often troubling notions of national belonging. The personal histories of North and South Vietnamese immigrants to East and West Germany during the Cold War enter a dialogue with those of Germans who grew up on both sides of the Berlin Wall. At the same time, the performance delves into some of the most horrific acts of xenophobic violence committed in postwar Germany, including the infamous “Sunflower House” riots in Rostock in 1992, when a three-day siege of a squalid refugee shelter by right-wing militants (and thousands of jeering onlookers) provoked a botched response from local politicians and police.

Throughout the evening, the personal and the historical often merge, or at least brush up against each other. Ms. Mitrovic stages the attacks flamboyantly, with faux Molotov cocktails, fog machines and projections: a stark contrast to the traditional music, dancing and flowers that often accompany the immigrants’ reminiscences.

In a festival packed with shows that promised to deal with explosive topics, “Danke Deutschland” was one of those that most succeeded in turning hot-button issues into convincing theater.



At other times, the issues themselves took center stage, sometimes to the detriment of theatrical effect or intent. In “Trans,” from the Catalan director Didier Ruiz, seven people from various walks of life who have transitioned from the gender they were assigned at birth recount their personal stories with courage and clearsightedness. But the result is a series of monologues strung together without much dramatic weight.

Another Spanish-language production amplified seldom-heard voices in a far more immersive and involving way. In Paisajes Para No Colorear” (“Landscapes Not for Coloring”), Marco Layera directs nine Chilean girls between the ages of 13 and 17 who sound off about their adolescent frustrations and yearnings in a society that expects them to assume traditional gender roles.

The show is propelled by the feisty, hormonal outrage of its young protagonists, and the best moments occur when the dialogue is dramatized, as in the tirade lobbed at an audience member who stands in for a chauvinistic and insensitive father, or the scene where the girls don fur coats and ape the mannerisms and opinions of the conservative upper class. Such moments make for more effective theater than the periodic group hugs and freakouts, which, however exhilarating, can feel indulgent and self-congratulatory.


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In a lineup that was often relentlessly focused on the here and now, the strangest and most creative entry was “Arctique,” a deliriously entertaining mystery that seemed to make up for the deficits of imagination in the more documentary offerings. The Belgian writer-director Anne-Cécile Vandalem’s atmospheric production is set in 2025 aboard a decommissioned Danish cruise ship that harbors a motley crew of stowaways. The fate of the vessel, and of Europe, in the not-too-distant future is gradually and deliberately revealed over the course of this lurid, sometimes spooky, often hilarious show.

Corporate greed, global warming, left-wing terrorists and polar bears are but a few of the ingredients in the zany production. Although I’m not sure what any of it means, “Arctique” is quite possibly the best horror-comedy-thriller-soap-opera-musical of the year.


In contrast to the wide-screen opulence of “Arctique,” a number of chamber productions were performed in the Schaubühne’s 99-seat Studio. They were among the festival’s best. In “A Generous Lover,” the British performer La JohnJoseph, who identifies as genderqueer, recites a monologue about mental illness set in a psychiatric ward populated by lost souls with names like Orpheus, Judy Garland, Gerry Adams and the Lobster King. The delivery is both campy — La JohnJoseph’s voice often sounds like Marlene Dietrich doing a Norma Desmond impersonation — and moving, as this story of love and insanity mixes humor with pathos.

A far more ambitious Studio production was “Post Humains,” by the French-Canadian director Dominique Leclerc, a fascinating two-hour show about the merging of man and machine. Ms. Leclerc and three other actors offer an absorbing and occasionally interactive lesson about the brave new world of cyborg technology and philosophy. Full of humor, finely honed observations and versatile performances, it is a deeply human exploration of a technologically complex theme. The result is a long yet consistently gripping evening that is as entertaining as it is provocative and as artistically intelligent as it is didactic.

With all the sensational themes being explored, I was startled that the most remarkable show I attended dealt with the less exciting topic of social housing in Britain. Yet “Trap Street,” by the London-based theater collective Kandinsky, was not only the highlight of the festival but one of the most ingenious pieces of new theater I have seen recently. The concise, 80-minute play chronicles the life and death of a tower block in London’s East End (with the deceptively posh name Austen Estates) through the story of a family who move there in the 1960s, purchase their apartment in the 1980s and are forced out to make way for a luxury development in the present day.

The three-person cast deftly shifts between time periods in a mesmerizing single act that combines minimal stagecraft, improvised music and finely chiseled performances to create an anguished cry of moral outrage about neoliberal economic policies, gentrification and the erosion of the social security system.

“As a company, we tour a lot, and that is an opportunity for us to see plays from all over the world,” Thomas Ostermeier, the Schaubühne’s artistic director, explained in an interview, adding that he was delighted to host the New York-based theater collective the Wooster Group in the festival’s closing days. At the Schaubühne, they are presenting “The Town Hall Affair,” a re-enactment of a notorious 1971 debate on women’s liberation moderated by Norman Mailer and featuring the likes of Diana Trilling, Germaine Greer and Jill Johnston. The explosive event was captured by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus in the legendary documentary “Town Bloody Hall.”

“We think of ourselves as people living in a globalized world and are happy to have international contacts to welcome the people who come here. Perhaps the proof is when you look at the audience,” Mr. Ostermeier said. He gestured to the young, multilingual crowd milling around in the Schaubühne’s cafe and congregating outside in the sun with their cigarettes and beers. “I don’t know if they live here or whether they come specially for the festival,” he said. “But it’s a kind of utopia of the society we wish to have in Berlin.”

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The 19th Festival International New Drama (FIND) continues at Berlin Schaubühne through April 14.


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