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Berliner Ensemble takes a bow

Claus Peymann and Robert Wilson out; new artistic director Oliver Reese in. Before the rebranded "neue Berliner Ensemble" takes the stage in September, don't miss the last production of Wilson's "Threepenny Opera" on Jul 1.

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Lesley Leslie-Spinks

Claus Peymann and Robert Wilson out; new artistic director Oliver Reese in. We say a quick goodbye before the rebranded “neue Berliner Ensemble” takes the stage in September.

It´s always been a curiosity that the Berliner Ensemble notes the number of productions a play has had on its schedule. For the 75th time, Peter Pan. For the 200th, Peter Stein’s version of Kleist’s The Broken Jug. But looking back on the end of this chapter in the theatre’s history, you realize just how high some of these numbers are: the Ensemble is closing house on July 1 with Robert Wilson´s Threepenny Opera for the 284th and final time. That’s just a crazy lot of times to cover yourself with white-make-up, pencil on some tiny Weimar eyebrows, and hit the stage. Wilson’s imagistic, artificially slow, impeccably lit cabaret-inspired rendition of Brecht’s musical premiered in 2007. Stefan Kurt has been playing the lead as Macheath this whole time. We mean: 10 years! Does he still fit into his costume? There’s something poetic about saying goodbye to a performance that has been with the city for so long.

To pay our own respects, we stopped by the “seventh and final” performance of relative newcomer Baal, a muddy morality tale of a villainous poet’s moral ambivalence. This, Brecht’s first play, is set in the Probebühne by Sebastian Sommer, a young-ish director rising through the ranks of the Berliner Ensemble – this fall, he’ll go freelance. It was nice to see some of the long-time ensemble members in such an intimate setting, Ursula Höpfner-Tabori a very young 68, Anke Engelsmann a love interest at 67. Like the rest of Brecht’s pre-socialist works (and most of the alt-Berliner Ensemble programme), it’s pretty apolitical, but elemental for a slight Sturm-und-Drang portrait of an artist. Water pours from the sky and an open spigot; a pile of earth downstage turns to muck in which the actors roll about. Matthias Mosbach is a surprisingly slim Baal, and charming enough that his descent into depravity – leaving his pregnant girlfriend in the dirt, literally; garrotting his best friend – is relatively gripping. It’s an old chestnut that Brecht’s plays fail to enact his political philosophy because audiences invest emotionally in his characters rather than stepping back and thinking critically about the situation at hand. So here, too. When Baal dies alone, when his former lover drowns in the river, it’s touching. Even Wilson’s jerky human puppets of the Threepenny Opera and the plaintive screeching ballad of Pirate Jenny, elicit real pathos. At Brecht’s theatre, we care almost despite ourselves.

Threepenny Opera, July 1, 19:00. Berliner Ensemble, Mitte