BERLIN — Germany has a rich tradition of playwrights, from Goethe to Brecht, but ask people here to name a contemporary German playwright and you’ll probably draw a blank. In recent decades, the creative space once occupied by playwrights in Germany has been largely filled by directors, whose take on the dramatic repertoire – and especially the classics – is often so refreshingly different that their productions can be considered new work in their own right. Turn right.
This season, however, some of the country’s leading playhouses are once again putting an emphasis on cultivating new literary voices, stories and approaches to drama. And because this is happening in 21st century globalized Europe – or perhaps because of a lack of A-list domestically grown playwrights – there is a surprising amount of new work on German stages coming out of the pens of international playwrights.
One of the most prominent places where that happens is Berlin’s Volksbühne, a rare German theater run by a playwright. After releasing three of his own works earlier this season, the new Volksbühne leader René Pollesch ushered in the world premiere of Kata Weber’s “MiniMe” in 2022. Like many of the works of this Hungarian writer (she is best known for the play and film ‘Pieces of a Woman’), the production was directed by Kornel Mundruczo, her artistic and romantic partner.
Unfortunately, the couple, who also recently worked on the premiere of an opera at the nearby Staatsoper, failed to hit the mark with their latest collaboration — which, for better or worse, has nothing to do with the diminutive Verne Troyer. in the ‘Austin Powers’ movies.
With “MiniMe,” Weber and Mundruczo have created a sordid 90-minute domestic horror sitcom about a pre-teen girl (the exceptional 10-year-old newcomer Maia Rae Domagala, whose performance is one of the evening’s few saving graces) and her mother, a ex-model who grooms her like a JonBenét Ramsey-type beauty queen. But Weber never lets us quite buy the disturbing premise of a mother so determined to mold her daughter in her own image that – spoiler alert – she gives the child Botox injections.
Mini’s ineffective father is a deadweight at the center of the game, spending way too much time on the parents’ boring marital problems rather than investigating the perverted mother-daughter relationship.
Mundruczo’s elegant production, with smooth video work and a live soundtrack, as well as an underused onstage pool with a flamingo float, doesn’t really liven up. The handsome set of a slick but sterile suburban home gives the production a degree of naturalistic detail uncommon on German stages, which generally favor abstract or stylized approaches; it underlines the materialism and superficiality that destroy the play’s characters.
Realism is the last thing you would associate with Toshiki Okada, the prolific Japanese theater artist, whose latest work, ‘Doughnuts’, recently premiered at Hamburg’s Thalia Theater. (“Doughnuts” will also play in Berlin this May, as part of Theatertreffen, an annual celebration of the best theater in the German-speaking world.) For over 75 minutes, six actors inhabit a stranger and more claustrophobic world than that of “MiniMe”, and yet, paradoxically, somehow it seems true and more in touch with now.
The play’s absurd premise, in which a group of dignitaries is trapped in the lobby of a fashionable hotel – perhaps academics, perhaps businessmen – is reminiscent of the work of Beckett and Buñuel. While talking to each other and a comically ineffective receptionist, the actors perform precise movements that update traditional Japanese Noh theater techniques and seem to illustrate, interpret or even contradict their dialogue. The actors are pitch perfect as they accompany their meticulously recited monologues, on topics ranging from the hotel amenities to a bear terrorizing a nearby supermarket, with cryptic and often hilarious gestures.
In Germany, Okada is one of several prominent playwrights who often stage their own works in aesthetically distinctive productions, giving them a rare degree of control. Another example is Australian writer-director Simon Stone.
Stone’s latest play, ‘Our Time’, at the Residenztheater in Munich, is a sprawling five and a half hour contemporary saga loosely inspired by the work of Odon von Horvath. That Austrian writer vividly described life in Europe shortly before World War II, but Stone’s drama is set in our own troubled times.
In three acts, we follow 15 characters over the course of six years, from 2015, when Germany began to welcome more than a million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, right up to the coronavirus pandemic. This makes for immersive theater despite a few soap opera touches, wild coincidences and some speeches towards the end.
Performed entirely in and around a hyper-realistic mock-up of a gas station grocery store, “Our Time” works best when the dialogue settles into a natural, casual register. The impressive cast comes from the enormous ensemble of the Residenztheater, which has been hard at work this season in a series of marathon productions.
“Our Time” is currently sharing the program at the Residenztheater with works by Shakespeare and Molière. However, another theater in Munich has shown greater involvement with new playwrights: the Münchner Kammerspiele, like the Volksbühne, is betting on new plays that will form the backbone of its repertoire under a new artistic director, Barbara Mundel.
The pandemic has made these efforts more difficult. It has been difficult to attract audiences to the theaters everywhere, but it is especially challenging when the playwrights are unknown. Many recent Kammerspiele shows I’ve seen were poorly attended. So I was pleased to see Munich theater buffs flocking to a recent performance of ‘Jeeps’, a new comedy from the young German writer and director Nora Abdel-Maksoud, which has one of the best premise of any play I’ve seen. long seen: in the not-too-distant future, inheritance has been abolished. Instead, estates are distributed by a lottery run by the Job Center, a bleak office where both the unemployed and recently disinherited gather in hopes of scoring a winning ticket.
“Jeeps” is a clever, playful and fast-paced farce, but the actual satire seems minor and, judging by the belly laughs, mostly harmless. I wondered exactly who or what is being spit here. The public was too good to be provoked, let alone alarmed.
Still, there’s no doubting the talents and charisma of the four actors who embellish Abdel-Maksoud’s banging dialogue and simple, unadorned staging—a far cry from Stone’s and Okada’s more classy productions—with verbal and physical high jinks. The Kammerspiele clearly has a hit on its hands. That’s an encouraging sign for Mundel’s direction for her home as a breeding ground for new dramatic voices.
Little Me. Directed by: Kornel Mundruczo. Until March 28 in the Volksbühne.
Donuts. Directed by Toshiki Okada. Until March 28 at the Thalia Theater.
Unsere Zeit. Directed by Simon Steen. Until 13 March in the Residenztheater.
jeeps. Directed by Nora Abdel-Maksoud. Until 29 March at the Münchner Kammerspiele.