German director Thorsten Lensing has astonished and provoked for the past three decades, but he feels like one of theaters best-kept secrets.
In the fast-paced world of German theater, where hundreds of playhouses churn out productions by the dozen, Lensing develops his works gradually and in intensive collaboration with his actors and artistic team. His deliberate method makes him a rare practitioner of what might be called slow theater. A new Lensing staging is a big deal and worth waiting for.
Crazy for Consolation, which premiered this month at the Salzburg Festival, is only Lensings 16th production in 28 years. The previous one, in 2018, was a towering adaptation of David Foster Wallaces epic novel Infinite Jest. Before that, he tackled works by Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and William Carlos Williams.
Like Infinite Jest, Crazy for Consolation unfolds on a mostly empty stage. The four actors, all Lensing regulars, perform in front of, and on top of, a massive steel roller. With minimal props (a swinging rope, fizzing cans of beer, hundreds of walnuts raining down onto the stage), the play sketches a series of vignettes centered on siblings Charlotte (Ursina Lardi) and Felix (Devid Striesow), who are orphaned at an early age and go through life processing (or failing to process) their trauma and grief.
In the opening scene, sister and brother, aged 10 and 11, play their favorite game at the beach: pretending to be their dead parents. They kiss, lather each other with sun lotion and bark at their (imaginary) children not to swim too far out. A deep-sea diver (Sebastian Blomberg) surfaces and startles the children out of their fantasy world and into even stranger realms where books and dreams come to life. As the plays narrative becomes increasingly surreal and fragmented, the actors inhabit a variety of roles, not all of them human.
The production is full of unpredictable developments and arresting metamorphoses. The adult Felix, incapable of feeling pleasure or pain since his parents death, enters into a sexual relationship with an older man (André Jung) who tries to break through Felixs protective shell. Charlotte, transformed into an octopus, confronts the deep-sea diver with a rancor-filled monologue about life as a cephalopod. What good are her nine brains and three hearts, she asks, when an octopus average life span is only four years?
In this very talky play, Lensing and his actors tackle serious issues with a light touch. Even while examining grief and the craving for human connection, the production lands with ease, modesty and warmth. Throughout, the actors switch fluently between registers, from emotional rawness to slapstick to absurdist comedy, in performances that are closely observed, credible and moving.
As a freelance director, Lensing works outside Germanys subsidized theater system and relies on producing partners. Crazy for Consolation has no fewer than eight, including theaters and arts organizations in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Luxembourg. The shows next stop, in late September, will be the Sophiensaele, in Berlin.
The leisurely pace at which Lensing works is the main exception in the German theater landscape. Its not unusual for in-demand theater makers to take on heavy workloads and even the most gifted are likely to stumble from time to time.
A contemporary update ofIphigenia at Salzburg caps an enormously productive year for young Polish director Ewelina Marciniak. Its a co-production with the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, Germany, where Marciniak has directed acclaimed adaptations of recent Polish novels, including Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuks The Books of Jacob. This year, Marciniaks feminist deconstruction of Schillers The Maid of Orleans was invited to two of Germanys most important theater festivals Theatertreffen, in Berlin, and Radikal Jung, in Munich and the director made her Deutsches Theater Berlin debut with a cheeky and energetic production of Goethes Werther.
Yet I was disappointed that Marciniaks Salzburg Festival debut lacked the freshness and verve of her earlier productions. The play, a reworking of Euripides and Goethe by Polish writer Joanna Bednarczyk, strives to reinterpret the character of Iphigenia, whose father, King Agamemnon of Greece, sacrifices her to appease a vengeful goddess.
In constructing her contemporary parable about victimhood, Bednarczyk draws on Soren Kierkegaard, the #MeToo movement and debates around cancel culture. The plays excruciatingly long first half plays out as a dysfunctional family drama in which Iphigenia is a budding pianist in an intellectual household. She grows up surrounded by hotshots: her father, a professor of ethics who is about to publish his magnum opus; her mother, Clytemnestra, the best actress in town; and her uncle, Menelaus, the best lawyer in town. Her parents are dismissive of her boyfriend, the athletic Achilles, who is all muscle and no brains. And her aunt, Helen, is such a nymphomaniac that she needs to periodically be kept in isolation.
Early in the production, Bednarczyk subjects us to a lengthy lecture drawn from Kierkegaards Fear and Trembling to establish the familys intellectual credentials (and perhaps her own) and set up the plays moral stakes. Shortly after, Agamemnons high-minded ethical ideas and his research into the psychology of perpetrators and victims are put to the test after Iphigenia makes a bombshell revelation: For the past decade, her uncle has been molesting her. Agamemnon insists on her silence to save face and protect his career.
Agamemnons willingness to sweep the abuse under the rug should outrage, but Bednarczyks depiction of him as a spineless pseudo-intellectual makes it difficult to feel even a tremor of indignation. The fathers subsequent confrontation with Menelaus is so stilted and jumbled that it nearly derails the play. Only the scene where Clytemnestra counsels her daughter to grit her teeth and bear it is persuasive and sobering.
The eight-person cast, drawn largely from the Thalias acting ensemble, is uniformly committed, but theres only so much they can do with such weak dramatic material. The productions final act, set 20 years later on an island where Iphigenia has fled, is full of poetic monologues and imagery, including a piano on fire in the middle of an onstage pool, but after slogging through the twisted soap opera of the first half, its difficult to focus on these scenes that seem to belong to a different production entirely.
Part of what makes this Iphigenia so awkwardly unconvincing is that moral psychology is a poor substitute for the fury of the gods and the vicissitudes of fate. (Similar problems plagued Maja Zades recent version of Oedipus at the Schaubühne Berlin.) There have been more successful recent attempts to update the saga of the house of Atreus, the calamity-stricken clan at the center of Iphigenia, including a campy sitcom version, by Christopher Rüping, and Robert Ickes straight-faced rewrite. For all their differences, though, neither of those stagings fully rejected the ancient Greek belief in deities who meddled in human affairs.
Its understandable that emerging directors like Marciniak want to make a splash by staging as many productions as they can each season, but maybe slowing down isnt the worst thing in the world.
Verrückt nach Trost
Directed by Thorsten Lensing. Sept. 30 through Oct. 9 at Sophiensaele Berlin.
Directed by Ewelina Marciniak. Salzburg Festival until Sunday; Sept. 22-25 at Thalia Theater Hamburg.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times