The beginning is electric. The five actors, in street clothes, stand near the edge of the stage and look the audience straight on. Dimitrij Schaad speaks first, unleashing – in a remarkably cheery tone – a torrential rant about the unjust system we live in, and then cataloguing the prejudices facing each of his fellow actors. For Jerry Hoffman, it’s that he’s black and disabled (a bewildered Hoffman mutters something about his meniscus) and faces police frisking wherever he goes. For a beautiful woman like Cynthia Micas, it’s that everyone wants to know how she looks naked. Then there’s Taner Şahintürk, bearing the burden of his Turkish heritage, and the positively geriatric Thomas Wodianka (age: 41). The motormouth Schaad, meanwhile, describes himself as “der Hammer”, a “perfect temple of talent”.
We’ve heard all these politically incorrect clichés before, but here they pile upon each other with such willful ridiculousness – for Hoffman, it goes from drugs to AIDS to Ebola to Boko Haram – that it’s impossible not to be taken in. These 10 minutes fizz with wit and self-reflective humor, climaxing with an inventory of all the things that nevertheless make Germany a progressive, enlightened, safe place to live: women’s rights; good highways; neither the death penalty nor hurricanes. “Danke, Deutschland!” hollers the ensemble.
That’s how Maxim Gorki resident director Yael Ronen launches Das Kohlhaas-Prinzip, her freewheeling adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 novella Michael Kohlhaas. Following the success of Common Ground – a show about the Yugoslavian War that was invited to last month’s Theatertreffen – the Israeli-born director again poses questions of violence, law and responsibility. And, because Ronen is as interested in the absurdities of our world as in its injustices, she serves this up with plenty of black humor, theatrical self-awareness and manic energy – albeit with less political nuance and emotional depth than in Common Ground.
After the personal reckonings of the first scene, we get Kleist’s story updated for Besserwisser Berlin. Kohlhaas the horse dealer of 16th-century Brandenburg has become Kohlhaas the e-bike entrepreneur of modern-day Friedrichshain, a strict vegan who assiduously separates his trash and always buys eco-friendly cleaning products. He’s never even gotten a parking ticket – because, duh, he doesn’t even own a car.
But as the script keeps reminding us, Kohlhaas is one of the most righteous but also appalling men who ever lived. And this Kohlhaas (the dynamic, intense-eyed Thomas Wodianka) snaps when he’s on his bike, his five-year-old son on board, and is hit by an armored Mercedes speeding down the street. The gazillionaire at the wheel is an asshole, prompting Kohlhaas to toss his (probably organic and fair-trade) coffee all over the car’s panda-fur upholstery. The gazillionaire wants to settle. Kohlhaas wants only that the gazillionaire apologise to his son and pay the medical bills. Things escalate, and soon there’s an Occupy-like force behind Kohlhaas, first setting off stink bombs but eventually donning Guy Fawkes masks for a campaign of arson and gunfire. The upstanding citizen has become the leader of a murderous brigade.
And it doesn’t stop there. The show adds a second Kohlhaas figure, a Palestinian cheese merchant named Michail who’s subjected to the abuses of bureaucratic arbitrariness at the Israeli border. He winds up, illegally, in Berlin – and then in the middle of the rest of this mess, an innocent scapegoat caught in the squabble of more privileged men. And because that isn’t enough, video projections of ravens flap about the stage, and Micas descends from the rafters in a black bodysuit and feathers. She tells us they’re Indian ravens: an invasive species as a metaphor for a flood of unwanted immigrants.
Aside from Wodianka, the actors cycle through roles. They’re also constantly constructing and deconstructing the set – a giant jumble of car doors, tires and bicycle wheels – between the breakneck scenes. As is often the case at the Gorki, it’s a highly physical undertaking with a propulsive musical drive, no more so than when Wodianka growls his way through an impassioned rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.” Instant applause.
It’s enough to make you dizzy, and things can get lost in the hullabaloo, particularly Michail’s tale. Still, the questions stick. Does corruption know any bounds? When do we compromise on our principles? And how is it that virtue tips into vice?
Virtue and vice rush to the center of another spring premiere at the Gorki. In Mania, director Miloš Lolić compresses ancient Greek tragedy The Bacchae – a showdown between pleasure-loving Dionysus and buttoned-up young king Pentheus – into 90 minutes of thumping electro beats and sweaty club-style dance moves. There’s also a lot of orgiastic writhing in a sea of pink primordial goo. Remember that Nickelodeon slime called Gak? This is kind of like that. Oh, and the stage is dominated by a giant silver balloon dog, a la Jeff Koons (in 2013, when Koons’ orange pooch went for $58.4 million at Christie’s, it became the most expensive single work ever sold by a living artist).
This isn’t mere hedonism for Lolić: the Belgrade-born director himself cited clubbing as his lifeline during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. Unfortunately, the bass is sometimes so loud that it drowns out the actors’ voices (English speakers have an advantage here, thanks to the surtitles, but the exalted language can still feel impenetrable).
But hey, maybe don’t worry about Euripides’ text. Turn your attention instead to the seven-member ensemble, who throw themselves at the material – and get an astonishing workout in the process. Sesede Terziyan, the lone woman in the cast, is particularly hypnotic, her (synthetic) knee-length dreadlocks swinging from side to side as she offers us seductive glances. Aleksandar Radenković turns the priggish Pentheus into a sad-eyed, sympathetic figure, and Till Wonka’s Dionysus is less a libertine god than an unfulfilled man. When Radenković and Wonka sit on the edge of the stage, embracing and talking, the sense of tenderness is sudden and heart-rending.
And, well, then the techno returns.
Das Kohlhaas-Prinzip, Sun Jun 16, 19:30 | Maxim Gorki, Am Festungsgraben 2, Mitte, S+U-Bhf Friedrichstr.
Mania, based on The Bacchae, Jun 13 and 20, 19:30 | Maxim Gorki, Am Festungsgraben 2, Mitte, S+U-Bhf Friedrichstr.