Theatrical Revolution

A German production at the Cameri used a large wheel to move both its set and the actors, to stunning effect.

It used to be that a lover of theater had two possibilities when he wanted to see good theater not in Hebrew. One way was to travel abroad. The other was to wait for the Israel Festival in Jerusalem, which was able to bring large theater productions once a year, performed by world-renowned theater troupes with their own sets and actors.

Today, traveling abroad is far less expensive and sometimes a good seat in a theater in London, Berlin or New York can cost about half the price of the actual plane ticket. And at the same time, Israeli theaters active in Tel Aviv have programs to host colleagues from around the world, some of them in reciprocal visits.

Arno Declair

This week, the Cameri hosted the Deutsches Theater Berlin in its large auditorium with Dea Loher’s play “Thieves,” directed and designed by Andreas Kriegenburg. The German-language production three and a half hours with an intermission, with Hebrew subtitles was an opportunity to encounter a type of theater completely different from the kind usually served up to local theatergoers.

The first thing that stood out even before the performance began, and became even more evident as it progressed is the fact that theater of this sort, specifically the way it looks, has almost no chance of being seen here. We are accustomed to a production in which even if the set appears to be large and stable, it is designed so it can be taken apart and transported and trundled around the country, auditorium to auditorium. Therefore, most of the productions we see here in repertory theater are on an empty stage with traveling panels, props and furniture.

The audience in the Cameri’s large hall were greeted by a structure of two thick and stable walls on either side of the stage, perpendicular to the audience. Between them was a back wall and, approximately mid-stage, an acting platform. In the first scene, a man on the upper level, in pajamas, is lying on a blanket. We hear from him that he hasn’t the strength to get out of bed. Later we learn that his name is Finn Thomason and he has long ceased communicating with both his sister and father.

On the lower level, a young woman talks about and to herself, and about and to her husband and her child, who are not present on the stage; there is some question as to whether they exist at all. She has a “magnetic” finger (we later learn this is because she was once struck by lightning), but now she is mainly perturbed by having seen a wolf in a nearby field. Later we will also learn that her name is Linda Thomason and she is in fact the sister of the man on the level above her.

The first monologue and the second scene are separated by jazzy American music, which Linda elicits by pressing on the picture of a radio hanging on the wall. This is the music that accompanies all transitions between scenes. What is fascinating, however, is the way the transitions occur. Between the two perpendicular walls stand a huge wheel with four wings. When it turns in the direction of the audience, the upper level removes from the stage the woman who had been on the lower level. And the man who had been on the upper level slowly slides down from it until he is standing on the stage. The wall that had been behind him then removes him from the stage.

Then the wheel changes its direction of movement and reveals the couple Monika and Thomas Thomason. He is a policeman. She works in a supermarket and her boss wants to send her to manage a supermarket in Holland. An ordinary conversation by a couple about a possibility of “relocation,” apart from one simple fact. It reveals the play’s artifice. So, Thomas Thomason says his lines but then also speaks the stage directions. As in: “Then he says, in response ...” This expropriates the situation from stage realism.

More importantly, though, is the fact that the stage mechanism, a kind of waterwheel which physically moves characters from the stage, creates a focus of interest as it forces the actors to perform on a moving surface tilted backward or forward, to hang onto a rising wall (with their hands or by means of a swing) or to speak while the acting platform is rising and leaving the impression that it is spilling the actors and the characters. All along, you want to know what is going to happen physically on the stage: Will the wheel move backward or forward, and what will this make the actors do?

You soon realize this is not only a visual gimmick. This wheel is also a central image in the characters’ world. They are in a kind of huge vortex, more powerful than they are and entirely arbitrary, which is able to lift them up and knock them down in accordance with its caprices. And one can never know what direction it will move in next or when it will start to move.

According to the program notes, the stage image is not Loher’s. She wrote the play about a group of people. The appearance of the stage is the vision of director and designer Andreas Kriegenburg, who frequently works with Loher. She gives him total freedom and does not intervene in his staging decisions.

It could be that Kriegenburg found inspiration for his stage vision in an e-mail correspondence with Loher during the course of the rehearsals, which is printed in the program in German. There, he asks her why two families in the play are called Thomason, though it is stressed that they are not related.

Loher responds that, at first, the intention was for all the characters to be called Thomason. It turns out and this, too, appears in the text of the play that in Japan, “Thomasson” is a word for something that has no use, because of an American baseball player, Gary Thomasson, who played in Japan in the early 80s and was not useful. So Loher writes a play about characters who experience the German reality of achievement from the perspective that they are useless. Some “world wheel” raises and lowers them on the stage of life, as it pleases. Further along, we meet a couple from a higher social class, the Schmidts. They announce that there is an animal in their garden, which is following them. Perhaps it is a wolf. They try to observe it through binoculars, getting sexually aroused by the fact that someone is watching them.

Then we discover that someone is indeed watching them, a person who wants to learn about their life. They bring him into their home. A few days later, when he informs them they have ceased to be useful to him as he has learned what he had wanted and is leaving (perhaps the play’s title comes from here), they set upon him violently and kill him in a kind of bourgeois ritual him with a skillet, her with a hammer.

No scene is particularly dramatic. Some of them are routine, bordering on embarrassing banality. A sales clerk from the store goes to Tom Thomason’s police station. She talks about a suitor who has borrowed money from her, has promised to take her to a diplomatic party and has also tried to strangle her, even though afterward he apologized. When the policeman asks her if she wants to file a complaint, she says she doesn’t; she just wants to know what to do if he calls her again.
Another complainant, Frau Davidoff, tells the policeman that her husband left the house one night and disappeared. The policeman writes down the man’s description and only after a long series of questions and answers does he discover and with him, the audience that Herr Davidoff left home 43 years ago and she is only approaching the police now because she has begun “to miss him a bit.”

Later, on the beach on the upper level she meets the father of Finn and Linda Thomason and a late romance blossoms between the two. And thus, before our eyes there is always a mechanical happening on the stage that requires acrobatic skills of the actors and also a lot of risk taking.

At the same time, we get a picture of 10 lonely people, with loose connections among them. And in the end, after three and a half hours, we arbitrarily take our leave of these characters. We have seen them shaken and tossed on the stage of life. Small stories, that haven’t pretended to symbolize anything. Realism almost for peanuts, which is nevertheless told on a stage in such a way that the audience cannot for a moment ignore that what it is seeing is not a reconstruction of reality.

This was a big lesson in how, even if the materials are taken from reality, theater has to afford them an artistic adaptation, transforming the materials into artistry that is self-aware at every single moment and its existence onstage is justified by the aesthetic value and not only the social or psychological value, however important they may be.

This is a lesson the Israeli theater must internalize. Therefore I was glad to see among the culture seekers in the audience (some of whom, alas, left at the intermission), a large number of theater people. I hope that some of the possibilities presented by the Deutsches Theater Berlin will be absorbed here.