Yi Zhao

My Buddy Beethoven

She Talks to Beethoven is one of Adrienne Kennedy’s Suzanne Alexander plays, in this case centering on Alexander in Ghana in 1961, shortly after the country’s independence, as she convalesces from a wound and awaits news of her husband, David, a “revolutionary poet,” professor, and possible renegade from political assassins, who may already have been killed. In a sense, the play pits Alexander’s tension with the tensions of Beethoven’s Fidelio, in which a woman rescues her husband from a political prison. In other words, Kennedy considers the role of art as consolation and inspiration during difficult times. The play also delves into the creative process as Alexander and her husband, who wrote together at times, had quarreled over a play she was writing on Beethoven, as, David felt, Suzanne viewed the great composer in too romantic a fashion. Rather than simply paralleling Alexander’s predicament with the plot of Fidelio, Kennedy puts Alexander in dialogue with Beethoven himself, who is undergoing great stress in his own life while writing Fidelio, due to his health problems, established deafness, difficulties with his nephew to whom he acts as guardian, and the creative struggle of writing his sole opera, to say nothing of the invading French army led by Napoleon. What Kennedy creates, in this dialogue and overlap, is a sense of how immersion in Beethoven’s difficulties helps Alexander to deal with hers, but, because Beethoven is present to her, there is also the sense that Alexander becomes a confidante, almost a collaborator with the composer.

In a recent production at JACK, in Brooklyn, NY, director Charlotte Brathwaite accentuates the play’s verbal textures by doing away with all of the script’s naturalistic elements. The scenic design by Abigail DeVille presents us with twin “corridors” that arch around a central playing space. Audience members are invited to stand inside these structures and view the action through various irregular window spaces. Indeed, the corridors are actually spaces created by latticed walls so that moving through them provides differing views of the action. Meanwhile, the action of the two-actor drama is not restricted to the central space as the actors may at times walk through or behind the corridors, and thus in and out of the audience.

This dynamic conception of the play provides elements of a movement piece—not only are the duo in dialogue, they seem at times to be performing a pas de deux, with shifts in dramatic lighting and projections swirling within the playing space, while music—at times Beethoven’s, at times African instruments, at times electronic—creates a sonic counterpoint to the action. Highly stylized in its presentation, Brathwaite’s She Talks to Beethoven accentuates Kennedy’s play as a text of voices, shifting our attention amongst a past in Vienna, represented by contemporary accounts of Beethoven, a “present” in Ghana, represented by radio reports about David Alexander as a missing person, and a creative fantasy in which Suzanne Alexander (Natalie Paul) interacts with Beethoven (Paul-Robert Pryce) and both act out a verbal and non-verbal representation of their relationship.

As might be expected, a single viewing of this complex presentation leaves one primarily with a range of moments, of powerful impressions—sometimes of action over words, or of lighting over action, or of action viewed from a particularly advantageous observation point. By moving about the moving action, each viewer is given a different access to the play, while subsequent viewings would also afford differing experiences. Moments such as Beethoven rapidly immersing his head into a bucket and removing it, or of his shout to his nephew Karl, who tried to hang himself, while creating a silhouette of a hanging body, or of Suzanne crouched and writing in a notebook or moving away from Beethoven repeatedly to look out a window for her husband’s longed-for approach take on a spell-binding dimension due to the choreography of the presentation. One moment that especially fascinated me with its rhythmic precision was when Paul and Pryce, clasped together side by side and facing in opposite directions, moved together in a tense dance of both togetherness and opposition.

Because Pryce is a tall, angular black man, costumed in no way to resemble Beethoven, my impression from the start was that the “visits” from or to Beethoven were present to Alexander’s mind as her husband playacting, indulging her by taking on the voice of Beethoven during her creative process. At the end of the play, when David returns, she says to him “You sent Beethoven until you returned, didn’t you?” And David replies “I knew he would console you while I was absent.” As scripted, this moment might be taken as a “reveal,” indicating what Brathwaite’s production chooses to dramatize from the start: that David is Beethoven or, rather, that Beethoven is a screen for Alexander’s anxieties about David. While I can see the need for the line in a production that followed faithfully Kennedy’s stage directions, I felt that, here, it arrived as a little too pat, though, for some, it may well have been the “click” of confirmation about what we had been watching.

Kennedy’s play, which is a sort of fantasy-dream play, touching on creative isolation, political oppression, ideological struggle, and both the consolation and difficulty of committed relationships, borrows freely from eye-witness descriptions of Beethoven, mixing them with David reading from the revolutionary writer Frantz Fanon, as well as poems the Alexanders read on the air. Because Beethoven, grown quite deaf, required his interlocutors to write in “conversation books” so that he could respond to them, there is also a good deal of writing going on in the play. We might say that She Talks with Beethoven is also about Kennedy writing the play.

Brathwaite, a director who trusts physical theater to speak for itself, creates a discourse of movement that, in a sense, accompanies Kennedy’s text like an additional score, while her actors—using ingenious hand-held lighting devices/microphones—create verbal and visual textures of nuance and subtlety. Together with DeVille’s unusual installation-like playing space, with lighting by Yi Zhao, projections by Hannah Wasileski and sound design by Guillermo E. Brown, Brathwaite’s vision of She Talks with Beethoven takes on the dimensions of a long, meditative reverie. A narrative of risk, anxiety, rapport and ultimate triumph, the play doesn’t de-romanticize Beethoven, as David Alexander may have hoped, rather it portrays heroic fellow-feeling between artists in extremity, not to “console,” as David says, but to inspire. As does this intricate and imaginative production.


She Talks to Beethoven By Adrienne Kennedy Directed by Charlotte Brathwaite

Scenic Design: Abigail DeVille; Lighting Design: Yi Zhao; Production Design: Hannah Wasileski; Composer/Sound Design: Guillermo E. Brown; Costumes: Dede M. Ayite; Dramaturg: Kate Attwell; Stage Management: Julie Ann Arbiter, Gabriel DeLeon

JACK 505 1/2 Waverly Ave Brooklyn, NY

January 15-25, 2014

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