The Sophiensæle’s reimagining of the famous Heimat musical, Im weißen Rößl (1930), is an immersive exploration of cultural displacement, splintered identity and alienation. Banned by the Nazis, the original revue continued to live on in numerous productions by Europeans in exile in New York. In Das weisse Rössl am Central Park, Johannes Müller and Philine Rinnert take on the ambitious task of bringing those lost Rössl versions back to their own Heimat and blending them with the revue’s original music, essentially posing the question of how to rebuild a new cultural identity after flight and exile through a hybrid of musical theatre and lecture performance.
In Müller and Rinnert’s production, there is no “stage” as such. The entire auditorium becomes part of the performance, with benches and platforms positioned at opposite ends. Many audience members are literally displaced due to a lack of seats, and you’re often required to weave across the space, intermingling with the players as you follow the action. Cardboard cutouts of suitcases and the constant presence of the hotel luggage trolley, as well as your own active movement as an audience member, cleverly contribute to the sense of transience and unbelonging.
In recreating the experiences of Jewish-German refugees in New York, Müller and Rinnert produce a multilayered, intertextual performance with a dizzying blend of elements…
In recreating the experiences of Jewish-German refugees in New York, Müller and Rinnert produce a multilayered, intertextual performance with a dizzying blend of elements: fragmentary lyrics from the original musical appear on projection screens, cut-up sections of play scripts cover the desk, archival tapes and personal testimonies are read aloud. The smooth harmonies of acapella merge with aggressive cello solos and a vigorous live band to create exciting aural textures. The modernity of New York, conceived through flashing neon restaurant signs, is juxtaposed with nostalgia for the rural Austria and Germany of old; a nostalgia which itself appears misplaced for the characters, who struggle to miss and mourn a country so riddled with National Socialism. One of the starkest and most humorous points of contrast actually comes at the opening, when a lone trumpeter plays in front of a Pepsi sign as though in competition with it, his notes becoming increasingly muffled and eventually breaking down. Germany’s love-hate, dependence-revulsion relationship with the USA is finely teased out, even if the struggles of integration for these refugees are less subtly represented through the sloping “rock face” that the actors try and fail to scale at various points throughout the play.
However, nothing proves quite so immersive in recreating that sense of cultural alienation as the language of the play itself. Marketed as a performance in “bad German and English”, one might expect the play to be a 50/50 split between the two. But beginner level German won’t stand a chance in what turns out to be an hour and a half of very complex German, spoken in a mixture non-native accents. The play perhaps succeeds, then, in truly representing that feeling of confusion and displacement, as it can make you feel totally lost to the point of being ashamed of your “expat” status – ironic, given various monologues about the struggles of German refugees practising English upon arriving in New York. From what you can piece together irrespective of language and from the single audio recording spoken in English, the testimonies are funny, delicate and moving. It’s just a shame that anyone away from their own Heimat will lose the bulk of the storytelling.
Das weisse Rössl am Central Park April 5-8, 20:00