MNCHEN — At the end of a recent performance of “Bad Roads” here, the play’s Ukrainian director, Tamara Trunova, thanked the audience for staying for the entire 180-minute production, a harrowing sequence of vignettes set in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, which Russia invaded in 2014, eight years before starting a larger war against Ukraine.
“It’s much easier to drink a glass of wine than to watch our play,” Trunova said from the stage of the Münchner Volkstheater, where “Bad Roads” opened this year’s Radikal Jung (Radical Young) festival, a annual showcase of productions by emerging directors.
Radikal Jung’s two previously scheduled episodes were canceled due to the pandemic. This year’s edition, which started on June 26 and lasts next Saturday, will take place for the first time in the brand new Volkstheater, a luxurious performing arts complex in a former slaughterhouse.
The festival has traditionally focused on theater from the German-speaking world, but this year’s lineup of 11 plays was unusually international. The expanded geographical perspective seemed to recognize the artistic affinity between the work of young German theater makers and their counterparts in Greece, London and Paris. All but one of their productions were recently written dramas, which seemed to reflect a desire to tell new stories that specifically address contemporary issues. Many of today’s burning issues — including the pandemic, debates about gender and sexuality, the ubiquity of pop culture and social media, life in wartime and climate change — surfaced in Radikal Jung’s diverse production.
In a strong lineup that also featured an innovative digital adaptation of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and a brilliantly acted one-woman show about Britney Spears, “Bad Roads” stood out – and not just because of its – torn- heads immediacy.
Ukrainian writer Natalya Vorozhbit based the play, subtitled “Six Stories About Love and War,” largely on reports she collected while traveling through battle zones in eastern Ukraine. An earlier version of “Bad Roads” was performed in English at the Royal Court Theater in London in 2017; Trunova’s production premiered at the Left Bank Theater in Kiev in 2019. (A film version directed by Vorozhbit was Ukraine’s official entry to the 2022 Academy Awards.)
On a stage dominated by a gigantic fence, a dozen actors vividly conjure up Vorozhbit’s nightmarish stories. Hallucinogenic and often absurd, they alternate between barbarically cruel and banally mundane. In the opening story, a journalist on a fact-finding mission in the Donbas is required to list her identifying body features, such as moles and tattoos, on an application before entering the region, in case she is killed during her assignment.
The reporter, who introduces us to the war zone, seems to be a stand-in for the playwright, recites a long monologue that combines the prosaic and the poetic. She tells us about the suffering she experiences as well as the contradictory sexual attraction she feels towards the soldier who shows her around. “You’re not just some ripped Brad Pitt lookalike,” she says. “You really killed someone else.”
This introductory story outlines the moral ambiguities of the stories that follow, in which ordinary people, deprived of their lives by meaningless conflict, are pushed to their limits.
The production is relentlessly dark and savage, even if it’s overshot with morbid humor, such as the moment when a medic carrying her lover’s corpse introduces the soldier who accompanied her on the mission: “A headless body in a body bag just doesn’t turn me on.”
It was sometimes difficult, at least for this non-Russian and non-Ukrainian speaking viewer, to tell who was on which side. (The performance had German surtitles). The disorienting atmosphere was reminiscent of Sergei Loznitsa’s extraordinary film ‘Donbass’, another anthology of surreal episodes about the 2014 conflict. At the same time, Vorozhbit’s sensitivity to the psychology of her characters – and her desire to understand the perspective of even violent perpetrators – from ‘Bad Roads’ a deeply human work about the compromises, cunning and sheer blind luck required to survive in an inhumane time.
It was almost a relief to leave the real horrors of “Bad Roads” behind for the riveting dystopia of “Gymnasium,” a “high school opera” written and directed by Bonn Park with music by Ben Roessler. The only Folk Theater production in Radikal Jung, it is arguably the most playful and most entertaining German production to premiere last year. Set in a wacky mix of the late Middle Ages and the 1990s, the show is a campy, riotous broadcast of films like “Carrie,” “Heathers” and “Clueless” that gleefully pokes fun at American high school myths.
The standard characters and plot devices of teen comedies transformed into the eccentric setting provide Park and Roessler with plenty of fuel to dig through our strange world. Tribalism, feudalism and superstition are among the medieval codes reviving in the post-truth digital age. With sloppily sung musical numbers and dazzlingly colorful sets and costumes, “Gymnasium” comments on trolls, viral rumors and skepticism about climate change with a mildly satirical twist.
The hand-drawn sets, the low-budget special effects – including an active volcano towering over the school – and the rough and punchy playing of the Orchestra Academy of the Munich Philharmonic (credited as the Orchestra of Cheerleaders) help make “Gymnasium” the high school play you wish your school had been great enough—or your classmates talented enough—to perform.
While ‘Gymnasium’ constructed its world sui generis from historical and pop culture references, Greek director Elias Adam’s ‘We Are in the Army Now’ immersed its audience in a largely digital theater universe to capture the hopes, fears and confusions of Generation Z.
First presented as part of an online theater festival by the Onassis Foundation-Stegi in Athens, this impossible-to-categorize show is a social media vaudeville where four intrepid young performers bare their souls (and a lot of skin) as they scream into the cyber void. .
While their tools for self-expression are TikTok and Instagram — and many parts of the live performances are captured on the performers’ smartphones or computers and projected onto the back of the stage — their grievances are as old as the hills: anger at their parents, unhappy loves , the inability to change a world she refuses to accept. Their autobiographical monologues, performed with furious energy and physicality, are alternately heartbreaking and encouraging. In a lavish finale, the actors engage in a kick-ass cosplay, battling patriarchy and their own self-destructive tendencies as glam-rock Power Rangers.
Our world and the people in it need a serious fix. Radikal Jung’s innovative productions suggested that theater can help us untangle things, however modest, by fostering a greater sense of solidarity with the victims of complex systems of oppression. As one actor in “We Are in the Army Now” says, “Ideology cannot be explained using emojis.”
Until Saturday at the Münchner Volkstheater; muenchner-volkstheater.de.