Here’s a positive, multilateral thought for the post-election gloom: 2004–2005 is one of the best seasons in recent memory for international theater in New York. This week alone, three celebrated European directors will brave our shores, and perhaps it’s a measure of New York’s changing cultural geography that all will present their work in Brooklyn—the new homeland for theatrical auteurs. The borough has always welcomed newcomers; this month these latest foreign arrivals find havens for directorial provocation and playfulness at St. Ann’s, BAM, and BRIC Studio. Where else could makers and unmakers of tradition feel equally at home? In Brooklyn reinvention is always in style.
Sabine Harbeke, a new voice in German theater, makes her U.S. stage debut in Brooklyn this week with Und Jetzt/And Now, but she is hardly a stranger to the area. The 39-year-old playwright-director-filmmaker lived in Greenpoint for three years after studying film directing at the School of Visual Arts, and she still keeps her bike at a friend’s house for use during her frequent return visits. “For me Greenpoint was an incredible place to work. I found a loft with friends and looked at the skyline, saw the moloch every day across the river, but could concentrate and work. You have distance but can also be in the city. For writing you just need that.”
After six years in New York, Harbeke moved to Zurich shortly before 9-11. “It was like a family member was hurt; that’s how close I am to the city in my heart,” she recalls. Harbeke wanted to create Und Jetzt/And Now to show the disaster’s reverberations for people she knew and met. “Coming back to visit I observed that in daily life, behavior has changed. People have different attitudes and feel uncomfortable, thinking it could be them, any time, anywhere. I think it’s insane—and obviously Bush will do anything to push their fears. As Goebbels said, all you have to do is push fear and tell people you’ll protect them.”
Acutely aware of the differing points of view on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Harbeke wanted to create a project that would bring both of her worlds into the same sphere. She interviewed people, noted changes in politics, kept track of behavior she observed at large, and finally sat down to write, inspired by the stories she heard and saw. Und Jetzt consists of six stories set in Germany or the U.S., sometimes overlapping or intersecting. “It’s obviously a very fragmented structure. It was never my aim to tell only one story. I basically give little glimpses into people’s lives and say ‘this is one possibility of how people feel now.'”
“My work is political but I try to show patterns in private life and situations. How we feel after 9-11, with all the changes in the world, is ultimately a private issue. How do we deal with it? Do we get more politicized? Or do I withdraw with my family and start planting tomatoes?”
In plays commissioned and staged by major theaters in Germany and Switzerland, including Hamburg’s Thalia Theater (known for its innovative programming), Harbeke has explored the relationship of politics and daily life. Her plays include It Helps to Wish, Snow in April, Lustgarden, and Just for Today, based on Raymond Carver’s stories.
For Und Jetzt/And Now Harbeke brought together three actors from the Thalia’s resident company and three members of New York’s Actors Studio. “Not only were there different spoken languages, but also different theatrical languages. And the longer we worked, it became clear how different everyone actually is. It was never my goal to actually unite them or have one style, and I think it’s OK to see how German and American actors play these stories differently, as long as they share a feeling and storytelling language.” (The production, which will travel to the Vienna Festwochen later this year, is partly in English and partly in German with supertitles.)
Harbeke admires the “industrial character” of BRIC Studio on Fulton Street, where the piece will be presented, because it reminds her of the Thalia’s Hamburg home, an old factory. “It has a transparency in the form and style of it,” she says—a quality her work may share with the performance space.
(photo by Stefan Okolowicz)
Grzegorz Jarzyna arrives at St. Ann’s Warehouse November 10 from Warsaw to present Risk Everything, which he calls a “twisted” version of Canadian playwright George F. Walker’s 1997 play (which runs through November 21). Jarzyna come to town with spiky hair and a mischievous smile, fresh from presenting his outsized version of Magnetism of the Heart, Aleksander Fredro’s 19th-century comedy of manners, at the Pittsburgh Festival of Firsts. (Jarzyna also show up hot on the heels of his more intellectual Polish colleague Krzysztof Warlikowski, who staged The Dybbuk at BAM’s Next Wave Festival last month.)
Since 1998 Jarzyna has served as artistic director of Teatr Rozmaitosci in Warsaw (also called TR Warszawa). Now 36, Jarzyna has become one of Europe’s rising stars. On one hand he is known for his textured and compelling adaptations of novels and films: His 2001 stage version of Thomas Vinterberg’s film Festen (The Celebration) delved into the supernatural while finding Shakespearean depth in questions of historical guilt and generational conflict; carving a contemporary Hamlet out of a Danish screenplay. Later this year he will prepare a version of Nosferatu for Vienna’s Burgtheater and he has also hatched a plan for a stage production of Rosemary’s Baby.
At the same time, his more below traditional repertory ranges from Shakespeare to Witkiewicz and Sarah Kane, and he more or less relishes the notoriety sometimes brought by his contemporary gestures in treasured texts—like the eruption of Magnetism‘s effete parlor games into a disco frenzy of lust. “I’m the Polish guy they call to explode something,” he jokes.
Because Walker sets his drama “on the outskirts of a large city,” Jarzyna decided to mount Risk Everything as part of a series called “10 in Warsaw,” in which young student actors were paired with directors and dramaturgs and given three weeks and “no money” to create projects around the capital city. Jarzyna first staged the site-specific production at Warsaw Central, the main train station, which he calls “the trashiest place in Warsaw—dirty, stinky, full of criminals and 14- and 15-year-olds buying drugs in the toilet.” He and his youthful cast have relished the chance to shape the play’s transient characters and themes of desperation in response to new performance locations, which have included bars and a casino on the German-Polish border.
Though he is not certain whether a project created with students makes an ideal New York debut, Jarzyna’s eyes gleam when he talks about tailoring his mise-en-scène to St. Ann’s Warehouse. “I love this area of Brooklyn because I was born in Silesia, an industrial area of Poland, and it reminds me of that feeling, that style of beautiful old factories.” He plans to use the St. Ann’s space as a garage, with a glass wall upstage opening onto the street. “We will use the street,” he says gleefully, “reach out to it from the theater.” In this context, the director says, Walker’s loosely defined characters might become “a Polish family that came to New York when somebody frightened them.” Whatever changes he makes to the piece, he reflects, “in Brooklyn I think we will find some nice ideas.”
(photo courtesy of Goethe-Institut New York)
Thomas Ostermeier, co-artistic director of the Schaubühne in Berlin, brings his production of Ibsen’s Nora (as Germans title A Doll’s House) to BAM’s Harvey Theater November 9 through 13. His re-authoring of Ibsen’s iconic final scene will surely stoke conversations here. (Does a fish tank introduced in the first half have to get used in the second?) But Ostermeier isn’t so sure he should be considered an auteur. “In Germany I’m considered a very conventional, even conservative director,” he recently told The Financial Times. “A lot of critics want more from me.”
Ostermeier, born in 1968, acquired a reputation as a provocative director of edgy contemporary plays while running the Baracke second stage at the Deutsches Theater in the late ’90s. There he offered his Berlin audience national premieres of works by Mark Ravenhill and other young writers. Since 1999 he has run the Schaubühne, a center for politically engaged “director’s theater” since Luc Bondy and Peter Stein’s heydays in the 1970s. In a controversial arrangement, Ostermeier shares the company with choreographer Sasha Waltz, combining dance and dramatic repertory institutions under one roof. In his current post he has directed new work by Sarah Kane, Marius von Mayenburg, and Biljana Srblanovic—playwrights exploring particularly violent psychologies—in addition to classics.
True to Schaubühne legacy, Ostermeier’s quest for contemporary relevance often finds expression in social terms. Though he gives Nora a sleek, glossy modern setting, he sees Ibsen’s heroine as an emblem of women’s continuing oppression in a world of fixed bourgeois values; his Nora is driven to more desperate measures than the 19th-century Ibsen could even have imagined. Ostermeier’s rescripting of her final deeds, he says, fulfills the shock Ibsen’s first audiences experienced at her rebellion. Faced with this collision of play and production, New York audiences will have to decide what’s new and what’s old.