Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Beware, Doll, You're Bound to Fall

Review of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Yale Cabaret

Tired of fame, film icon Greta Garbo declared, “I vant to be alone.” Petra von Kant, the heroine of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, is the kind of self-involved diva who can’t bear to be alone. Directed by Leora Morris with Jesse Rasmussen, Fassbinder’s meditation on the vagaries of passionate love is also a character study that plays into considerations of how, for instance, all of a star’s or a director’s relationships are scripted with a central player and a supporting cast.

Played by Sydney Lemmon with a lithe sense of grand dame status, Petra is a successful fashion designer who lords it over her underling Marlene (Anna Crivelli, icily Germanic in a silent role) and holds court in her bedroom. The room, in Christopher Thompson and Claire DeLiso’s lush set, is essentially a large double bed framed by chairs and settees, a table with a typewriter, a turntable with LPs, and the ever-important house-phone on a pedestal. There are diaphanous red drapes that sometimes are drawn or opened by Marlene, who acts as both factotum and voyeur.

Sydney Lemmon as Petra von Kant

Sydney Lemmon as Petra von Kant

What Marlene gazes upon, as do we, is the social and erotic life of Petra. The two sides come together quickly when a visit from her well-set-up cousin Sidonie (Annelise Lawson)—in which the two women share details of happy and unhappy marriages (Petra has had one of each)—results in Petra’s meeting with Sidonie’s young friend Karin (Baize Buzan). For Petra, the meeting seems to be love at first sight, or at least it’s a really hot meet. The next scene, when Karin calls alone upon Petra, who insists she should become a model, is filled with the expectation of seduction. Petra may be changeable and peremptory, but her attachment to Karin while egotistical is also vulnerable. Karin, played with deer-in-the-headlights allure by Buzan, seems ready to become whatever Petra wants her to be.

Then comes the crash, by degrees. Fassbinder’s heart is in this one and Petra’s suffering for her ideal of love is a masochist’s delight. Having made Karin an arbiter of her happiness, she can only be made unhappy by the least sign of her object’s indifference. And Buzan is wonderful at rendering the kind of erotic self-possession that drives Petra wild. And she’s able to do so while also seeming to be much younger than Lemmon, whose probing questions and efforts to manage her lover’s life as she does her own career reminded me of the assured but apprehensive tone often struck by Judy Davis.

Eventually, as Karin’s background comes out—the working-class father who lost his job and killed Karin’s mother in a drunken rage then hanged himself; the estranged husband in Australia—we can see that Petra’s attempts to makeover Karin are going to have more lasting effects on herself than on her protégé. The fact that Karin has not given up men—the more casual, the better—becomes the source of the title’s bitter tears. And of the vicious abuse of the user by the used.

In the birthday scene that follows Karin’s departure to meet her errant husband’s return, we see Petra go to pieces by abusing those still close to her: her young daughter Gabrielle (Leyla Levi), Sidonie, who comes bearing a gift, and Petra’s mother Valerie (Shaunette Renée Wilson). In each case, there’s a sense of the cost of loving someone like Petra, but there’s also a sense—key to the notion of a central player—that all these females depend upon her to some degree. And all are quite able to act out in their subordinate roles: Sidonie with indignation; Gabrielle with earnest need for approval; Valerie with long-suffering attachment.

Masochism, then, is in the nature of love for one’s superiors, however we interpret the latter term, and Fassbinder lets that play out, while Morris and Rasmussen manage to find a tone between melodrama and camp. In the end, Petra’s relatives are used to her, and Karin has not, perhaps, disappeared for good (why abandon a powerful supplicant?), while Petra may learn to give Marlene her due, if not too late.

What we’re left with, I suppose, is a hope that some mutually helpful caring can be reached in a reciprocal fashion, but is that possible when the ups and downs of emotional investment are here as volatile as an unstable stock market?

Mention as well for the excellent use of songs emanating from Petra’s turntable, particularly The Walker Brother’s highly apropos “In My Room,” with its grandiose melancholy. A perfect song for when you vant to be alone with your own bitter tears.


The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
By Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Translated by Anthony Vivis
Directed by Leora Morris

Associate Director: Jesse Rasmussen; Dramaturg & Producer: Maria Inês Marques; Co-Scenic Designers: Christopher Thompson, Claire DeLiso; Costume Designer: Haydee Zelideth Antunano; Co-Lighting Designers: Andrew F. Griffin Elizabeth Green; Sound Designer & Composition: Frederick Kennedy, Christopher Ross-Ewart; Stage Manager: Avery Trunko; Co-Technical Designers: Mike Best, Mitchell Crammond, Mitch Massaro, Sean Walters

Yale Cabaret, March 31-April 2, 2016

Femme Fatale

Seeing the names Robert Woodruff and Rainer Werner Fassbinder associated with In a Year with 13 Moons, now playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, the audience can assume one thing at once: the play will not be an evening of light entertainment. Woodruff has a penchant for staging difficult works, the kind of plays that seem to bask in a pervasive unease. Fassbinder, for his brief span in the Seventies to early Eighties, was the enfant terrible of New German Cinema, was, in fact, its driving force, creating films with certain obsessive themes of urban loneliness, abuse—often with sadomasochistic flair—and romance, all delivered with a love of both melodrama and the demimonde. Fassbinder was also a complex, driven, productive genius with intense relations with both men and women. One of his more long-term lovers, a transexual named Armin Meier, committed suicide after Fassbinder broke with her. Fassbinder’s film In a Year of 13 Moons visits the last days of a character, Elvira, based on Meier; the play, adapted by Woodruff and his star Bill Camp, and translated by Louisa Proske, is not sparing of the mess that Elvira, who began life as Erwin Weishaupt, has made of her life, but is told, tellingly, from her perspective. She is our sympathetic guide to the world Woodruff and his amazing technical team have created.

The glory of this production—whatever one makes of the story—is in its presentation. What Woodruff does in this staging is nothing short of remarkable, fascinating, and gripping. 13 Moons goes beyond Autumn Sonata (Woodruff's adaptation of an Ingmar Bergman film two years ago at the Rep) in the sense that here we have a dialogue—an agon—with cinema that theater may be winning. Which is to say that, in much the same way that one goes to a Fassbinder film to see Fassbinder as much as any particular story, one watches this play to see “what Woodruff does.”

If you know the film, you might wonder how Sister Gudrun’s long monologue, recounting Elvira’s early life, as Erwin, will be staged. In other words, how will the stage suggest a lengthy tracking-shot of a figure walking through the entire grounds of the orphanage Erwin was sent to as a boy? The answer: brilliantly. The logistics of this and many other “multiple set” and “multiple frame” problems are solved with use of cameras and projections (Peter Nigrini) and with a complex scenic design (David Zinn).

The play isn’t set in our present, but it also doesn’t make much effort to be set in 1978; nor is it particularly Germanic in the way that Fassbinder always is, even when he works in English. The play inhabits a time that we might consider a kind of fallen post-World War II world: it’s a defeated world, in many ways, full of the half-lives that have always given the demimonde (of any era) its unique panache and pessimism. The colors of this world—beginning with the set’s mustard yellow walls—are unsettling, though also, at times, reassuringly beautiful. The lighting (Jennifer Tipton and Yi Zhao) and the sound/music (Michaël Attais) of the production are as important as anything in creating this world and our reactions to it. And costuming (David Zinn) is so key it acts like those oddly compelling details one encounters in dreams—exactly right in ways we can’t quite fathom. Like a Martin and Lewis routine that both Fassbinder and Woodruff give to Elvira’s former lover Anton Saitz (I hoped I spelled that right), the choicest bits in this tale are the things we can’t quite explain.

So: why Jerry Lewis, why Sister Gudrun, why the suicidal stranger who babbles Schopenhauer, and who proffers, quite politely, a corkscrew? Why a bedtime story about a brother and sister become a mushroom and a snail; why is Saitz's “A1 password” Bergen-Belsen? If God is in the details, so is the devil; with Saitz we presume a Nazi background, and Martin and Lewis—isn't that just another term for sadomasochism? (Some details, such as the orphanage and the slaughterhouse, come from Meier’s life-story; much of the rest might too. But using life to explain art is generally a weak move.)

At the heart of all this razzle-dazzle staging is Bill Camp. Miked so that we catch the catch in his voice at every turn, Camp’s Elvira is deeply human and really suffering, and offers none of the stock versions of the transexual we may have encountered elsewhere. The preening Queen, the sinister “half-and-half,” the campy ruined beauty, the evil-because-unreal seductress, the pathetic wanna-be—the echoes of such roles ricochet around the edges of Elvira’s persona, but one of the great strengths of Fassbinder as our Vergil to Elvira’s Dante is that he knows this world intimately and does not pass judgment from any “normative” position. While it is true that Erwin, in becoming Elvira, creates a “No Exit” situation from which there is no return, that, we may say, is simply an existential fact, not primarily an “I told you so” delivered preemptorily at a change in sexual identity.  Camp and Woodruff let us grasp the simplicity of this “stagger'd spirit.”

The surprise of her wife and child when Elvira tries again to be Erwin late in the play says it all: Elvira is who she is; Erwin is who she was. The twain don’t really meet because Elvira can't return to Erwin. When she confronts Saitz, Saitz has to take a long moment (and a dance routine) before he can remember either Erwin or Elvira. Who we were is simply not available to any of us.

Camp’s performance is worth being there for. It’s not likely to be forgotten. The other characters tend toward the flattened affect of costumes passing for people: Red Zora (Monica Santana), a topless Tinkerbell in high red boots; a cackling cleaning lady (Joan MacIntosh); Soul-Frieda (Jesse J. Perez), a crazy monologuist whose rap is vintage Seventies (I liked him until he started laughing/crying); Saitz (Christopher Innvar), a tennis-suit-wearing magnate who reminded me of Elliot Gould; Irene (Jacqueline Kim), the oddly prim wife with winsome, Kafka-reading daughter (Mariko Nakasone); the exhausting Sister Gudrun (MacIntosh); mean gays who brutalize Elvira in the violent opening scene; the abusive lover, Christoph (Babs Olusanmokun), who rails and beats and leaves… All of these people are little more than “suggestive of” the life that Elvira leads, but we shouldn’t forget that this is all from her point of view and they are who they are in her head. Except, perhaps, the suicidal stranger (Mickey Solis) who, for that reason, engages her in the play’s best verbal exchange—as first meetings so often are.

The final tableaux-in-motion, in which the main cast, Fellini-fashion, calls upon Elvira’s apartment while she addresses us on both stage and screen is incredible, comical, exhilarating, heartbreaking, tedious and momentous, all at once. And so is In a Year with 13 Moons.


In a Year with 13 Moons Film and Screenplay by Rainer Werner Fassbinder Adapted for the stage by Bill Camp and Robert Woodruff Directed by Robert Woodruff Based on a literal translation by Louisa Proske

Choregrapher: David Neumann; Scenic and Costume Designer: David Zinn; Lighting Designers: Jennifer Tipton and Yi Zhao; Sound Designer and Composer: Michaël Attias; Projection Designer: Peter Nigrini; Vocal Coach: Walton Wilson; Production Dramaturgs: Jessica Rizzo; Catherine Sheehy; Casting Director: Tara Rubin; Stage Manager: Alyssa K. Howard

Photos © Richard Termine; used by permission of Yale Repertory Theatre

Yale Repertory Theatre April 27-May 18, 2013