Spring in Berlin means blossoming chestnut trees, crowded outdoor cafes, and a surge of cultural events. The annual Theatertreffen, now in its forty-eighth year, is among the most frequented and debated, and with good reason. A perpetually controversial selection of the ten outstanding German-language productions of the previous season, it is generally taken as a gauge of local, as well as larger performance trends. In this iteration, the festival tried hard to counter its institutional bias of giving its imprimatur to the tried and tested by featuring a younger and hipper jury and tapping into bloggers and other exponents of social networking. The organizers announced their programmatic embrace of atypical, out-of-the-ordinary productions. "Bad surprises!" trumpeted the program book, gloating that this year's festival had the "courage to be truthful and impolite."
Well, perhaps. If the selections manifested a theme, it might be phrased as "over-it-ness"—or post-post. Maybe it is too soon to announce the return of the theatrically repressed as a post-post-dramatic turn, but there was plenty of text-based and classical or classical modern theatre by Schiller, Ibsen, Chekhov, Hauptmann, and Miller on offer. The most triumphant display of textuality, however, was Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek's furious and torrential reclaiming of the spoken (sung, shouted) word in Karin Beier's inspired production of Das Werk/Im Bus/Ein Sturz. Berlin performance collective She She Pop did a post-post-generational take on King Lear with their piece Testament by pulling off perhaps the most gutsy feat anyone attempted: bringing their own fathers onstage. Herbert Fritsch, surprisingly nominated with two festival entries, was clearly over the self-regarding pieties of Regie-theater, breaking all unwritten rules of stringent interpretation with a trippy, trashy, post-post-feminist A Doll's House. While there were a number of remarkable shows at the festival, both successful (Karin Henkel's deliciously loopy circus version of The Cherry Orchard; Roger Vontobel's handsome and subtle Don Carlos) and problematic (the overwrought schoolhouse showdown Verrücktes Blut or Stefan Pucher's Death of a Salesman turned garish reality television and road movie), the three productions considered below by Beier, She She Pop, and Fritsch marked particularly important territory, because they were, each in their own way, the kind of genuine outsider productions the organizers had in mind. The first was a triumphant return of a kind of unapologetic total theatre at a time when much contemporary performance seems to have attenuated into pseudo-cinema; the second represented the rising presence of the German freie Szene (free scene), which operates on the margins of the state-subsidized structures; and the third reflected the incursion of the provinces into a theatrical mainstream that has often disdained them.
Although an unlikely breakout event for Theatertreffen, the riotous, railing Gesamtkunstwerk Das Werk/Im Bus/Ein Sturz (The Works/On the Bus/A Fall) made for some of the most compelling viewing and listening of the festival. Jelinek's fulminating stream-of-consciousness prose pieces take aim at political skullduggery, bureaucratic negligence, and sheer stupidity and malfeasance, gleefully recycling the murky self-exonerating language of public officialdom. Das Werk refers to a half-forgotten episode of Austrian history—the building of an Alpine power station that cost many forced labor workers their lives under the Nazis; Im Bus cites an incident of a municipal bus in Munich that fell into a construction sinkhole; and Ein Sturz riffs on a recent occurrence in Cologne where the city archives collapsed catastrophically due to faulty subway construction. But Jelinek is not a journalist—she is a moralist, and her dense, spiraling, breathless disquisitions, shot through with wordplay, rapid rhythmic and tonal shifts, and metatheatrical moments (at one point the cast demands, in unison, "author, please let me shut up!"), are themselves linguistic construction sites.
Karin Beier, the artistic director of the highly touted Schauspielhaus Köln, where this production originated, not only adapted and orchestrated Jelinek's verbal monstrosities, but also teased them [End Page 630]