Real estate developers know that sometimes, to renovate an older house, you have to gut it first. Berlin director Michael Thalheimer’s production of Emilia Galotti (at BAM’s Next Wave Festival October 12 through 15) doesn’t render the 1772 tragedy of playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing unrecognizable. But the director does knock out a few walls and staircases along the way to revealing the play’s watertight dramatic structure. You might be amused to learn that the Deutsches Theater Berlin, making its first American appearance since 1916, was once the fount of German naturalism.
Thalheimer is first and foremost a mannerist. His moody and liquid staging of Lessing’s work pares away the clutter of the original dialogue and subplot. Minor characters and intrigues drop away. The German Enlightenment tragedy of social conflict between a lustful prince and his unscrupulous chamberlain Marinelli, and their plot to possess the pious and lovely bourgeois girl Emilia—kidnapping her on the very day of her wedding—becomes a kind of eternal study of absolute power. Thalheimer’s production takes up the central theme of ruthless sexual will, compressing five acts’ worth of dire consequences into 75 minutes. He lets us feel the velocity of Lessing’s indomitable machine of a play, hurtling its characters forward toward their fates.
“There’s a kind of friction or tension that comes from pairing modern thinking and actors with old texts,” says Thalheimer, speaking from Berlin recently through a translator. Yet he’s not attempting a deconstruction, but a kind of deeper fidelity to the play’s timeless core: “I’m interested in the universal aspect—things that still hold true, even after 300 years—whether in Germany or New York or any other place. You don’t need to know Lessing well to enter this world of human relationships.”
Emilia Galotti may be a classic play that every schoolchild in Germany studies, but in Thalheimer’s hands it appears radically unfamiliar. The characters vamp down the long, empty corridor of a set, moving sometimes like mannequins or robots. Their clothes are crisply fashionable, their gestures angular and modern. You wouldn’t be surprised to encounter them in a smart Chelsea gallery. Even their sudden, autistic bursts of emotion seem modish. It’s only when the actors begin to speak that we know something odd is afoot. Percussive, quick, and distorted, the syllables fly out of their mouths. We can almost hear the accelerator gunning.
“There are two roots for this quick speech,” the director explains. “One is that Lessing hints about the condensed time frame of his dramaturgy. The other comes from my observation about modern society and its forms of speechlessness.” It’s a paradox of sorts, because we seek to fill the gap with meaningless babble. Yet this jabberwocky “leaves no time for silence or for listening. It could be that there’s a huge emptiness that we cover by talking all the time.”
The play’s quickened tempo is conveyed by an insistent little waltz tune, gnawing at the edges of memory. Viewers may recognize the melody from Wong Kar-wai’s art house hit In the Mood for Love. The film’s theme music serves as an acoustic counterpoint to the actors’ dance of desire and deflection. Intriguingly, Thalheimer borrowed the tune even before he saw the original film. It suited his conception of Lessing, the oompah-pah of the waltz underlining the circular nature of the Prince’s erotic obsession. “These characters behave as if they were caught in some never ending rhythm,” Thalheimer says. “If they stopped for a moment to reflect and take a breath, they probably could avert the catastrophe. Instead they just stumble on.”