Renewing the World (or the Theater, at Least)

BERLIN — When a new play from one of Germany’s leading avant-garde theatermakers sells out a 2,000-seat venue, you know the world’s gone topsy-turvy. Imagine Robert Wilson debuting a show to a full house at Radio City Music Hall!

Yet, since October, a huge revue theater in the heart of Berlin, the Friedrichstadt-Palast, has been selling out every night it presents a new work from the acclaimed writer-director René Pollesch. (In 2021, Pollesch will become the artistic director of the high-minded Berlin Volksbühne.)

At the cavernous Friedrichstadt-Palast, the show shares the schedule with “Vivid,” an over-the-top, Vegas-style extravaganza that is about as far in tone from serious theater as you can get. This irony clearly hasn’t been lost on Pollesch, whose play seems to refute “Vivid’s” sleek, razzle-dazzle aesthetic at every turn, starting with its mouthful of a title.

“Believing in the Possibility of the World’s Complete Renewal” (“Glauben an die Möglichkeit der völligen Erneuerung der Welt”) is a minimalist chamber drama set loose on one of the world’s largest stages. Don’t expect death-defying acrobatics or rousing musical numbers. It’s a mordantly funny monologue about isolation and alienation that fuses personal reminiscences with critiques of capitalism.

As its star, Fabian Hinrichs, pontificates about loneliness, 27 dancers from the “Vivid” cast follow him around the stage like dutiful children, imitating Hinrichs’s gestures and poses and occasionally breaking into a choreographed number.

Wandering the auditorium and stage in a gold bodysuit, the sad, funny figure of Hinrichs, who is billed as co-director, intones his laconic and disjointed soliloquy with consummate theatricality (and often without a microphone). Is this melancholy poetry or tragically chic drivel? Pollesch seems to want it both ways.

In addition to the dance troupe, “Believing in the Possibility” also recycles staging elements from “Vivid,” including a gliding futuristic bridge and trippy laser lights. Such allusions seem intended to send up that vacuous blockbuster, whose non-songs and bizarre sets are periodically enlivened by muscular acrobatics and outlandish costumes. (Think second- or third-rate Cirque du Soleil.) At the same time, there’s a note of poignancy to Pollesch’s text and Hinrichs’s delivery: Against the odds, they make you believe in the sincerity of this undertaking.

Local critics have gone gaga for “Believing in the Possibility,” and much of the enthusiasm probably is owed to Pollesch’s cult status here. But despite Hinrichs’s blistering performance and Pollesch’s unmistakable prose, the show feels slight, dwarfed less by the Friedrichstadt-Palast’s massive stage than by the all the hype.

Inviting a serious avant-garde director to work at such a huge commercial venue is both an act of folly and a publicity stunt, and I wonder how much the show’s success has had to do with its breathless marketing, which promises the event of the century. The show’s initial run has been limited to a dozen performances, but the Friedrichstadt-Palast’s website teases that more may be coming in 2021.

Few could have foreseen that Pollesch would ever play the Friedrichstadt-Palast; but I suspect the Friedrichstadt-Palast is also playing him.

“Believing in the Possibility of the World’s Complete Renewal” could also serve as the slogan for Stefan Pucher’s production of “King Lear” at the Münchner Kammerspiele in Munich. In this new translation by Thomas Melle, Lear’s ungrateful daughters are radical feminists calling for the dismantling of the patriarchy by any means necessary. Surprisingly, it works.

The production shifts the emphasis away from Lear’s madness and focuses on the king’s refusal to stand aside after ceding power to the next, female generation. While he clings to his privileges, his heirs set about dismantling those traditional power structures.

Regan and Goneril are usually portrayed as scheming, bloodthirsty villains, but here they are guided by noble ideas. Understanding them as feminist crusaders neither cheapens their struggle nor excuses their wickedness. Melle does not go for moral relativism, and he does not exonerate the daughters for their villainy.

Despite Melle’s deep cuts — including to the dramatis personae — the plot is left pretty intact. But there are some unexpected changes, including a much-younger-than-usual Lear (played with abrasive bluster by Thomas Schmauser) and a clever gender-switch for Gloucester (the commanding Wiebke Puls), who chastises the king’s rogue daughters at her peril. Another standout is the charming and chameleonlike Samouil Stoyanov, who does double duty as Kent and the Fool.

The unnatural cruelty of children to their parents registers with forceful immediacy in this visually vibrant production. Set loose on Nina Peller’s pop-glam set (a single-story, rotating house topped by a billboard announcing “The End”), nine exciting actors from the Kammerspiele’s permanent company bring the story to contemporary life, fabulously attired in Annabelle Witt’s eclectic costumes.

Increasingly, “Lear” feels like the play of the moment on Germany’s stages. While the world seems to go to hell in a handbasket, directors from Hamburg to Stuttgart have turned to Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy to comment on the broken times in which we live. The Kammerspiele’s absorbing production proves that an old chestnut can be refreshed with clever and sensitive modification.

Another contemporary take on a classic currently at the Kammerspiele is far less successful. In “Die Räuberinnen” (“The Robbers”), an all-female deconstruction of Friedrich Schiller’s 1781 play, the director Leonie Böhm reduces the five-act melodrama to a plotless 80 minutes. Schiller’s memorable characters represent Enlightenment values, but Böhm refuses to treat them as avatars of abstract ideals. Instead, they address the audience in confessional monologues that can be painfully personal, or funny, or both.

Throughout the brisk performance, the focus remains on the protagonists’ psychological profiles. The direct addresses, developed by Böhm together with her actresses, are lively, and the acting is engaging, but the production meanders despite the energetic performances.

These include Julia Riedler’s ultracool Karl, the play’s hero, who leads a band of honorable robbers in the Bohemian forest, and Gro Swantje Kohlhof, who as Karl’s rival, Spiegelberg, ad-libs a lengthy and increasingly manic speech while standing on a seat in the middle of the audience.

A massive cumulous cloud dominates the production. Eventually, a storm arrives, dousing the stage in rain for the last 20 minutes. The actresses peel off their clothes and slide around sopping wet wearing next to nothing. Does the rain come to wash away the male-dominated canon of Western culture?

There is something both exhilarating and weary about this zany finale. As gleefully anarchic as it is, it feels sloppy and vague. When it comes to renewing the world onstage, more precision and focus is required. Creating a utopia, even a theatrical one, is serious business.

Glauben an die Möglichkeit der völligen Erneuerung der Welt. Directed by René Pollesch. Friedrichstadt-Palast, Berlin. Through March 5.
König Lear. Directed by Stefan Pucher. Münchner Kammerspiele. Through March 17.
Die Räuberinnen. Directed by Leonie Böhm. Münchner Kammerspiele. Through March 31.

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