In The Last Dreams of Helene Weigel or How to Get Rid of the Feminism Once and for All, the Panoply Performance Laboratory (PPL) employs the biography of Helene Weigel, matriarch of the Berliner Ensemble, as an opportunity to discuss sex, gender, misogyny, and jam-making. In the course of this “experimental documentary opera,” Weigel (Andrea Suarez) and various actors sing atonal ditties and quote liberally from Judith Butler and Carl Jung while clad in lingerie. Given the lack of air conditioning, those skimpy outfits seem motivated less by libido and more by health and safety concerns.
What motivated the project itself seems more opaque. Clearly, director/librettist Esther Neff and composer Brian McCorkle had some interest in exploring feminism, both contemporary and historical. But the choice of Weigel as a figurehead remains obscure, and her relation to characters such as Heloise, Vasilisa the Wise, and Simone de Beauvoir simply baffles. The script does not offer much illumination in this regard, composed of pronouncements such as, “To whom will I compare when the sound of shovels prove the existence of my melting ears?”
Actually, even those lines are more intelligible than PPL’s mission statement, which requires a comp lit minor to decipher. Its goal: “To whip up mass participation in the distribution of the sensible, understand conceptual genealogies, socio-political structures, and performance itself.” Perhaps they’ve achieved it, I really couldn’t say. The play feels like the work of very bright but easily distractible undergraduates who introduce competing philosophies without making sense of them. As an end-of-term project in a performance studies class, it would likely earn plaudits, but as a play delivered to a fee-paying audience, well, my melting ears are still recovering.