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