HAMBURG, Germany — During the five and a half hours I spent in “Die Ruhe,” a performative installation that was one of 10 productions selected for this year’s Theatertreffen, I put a live worm in my mouth, cut off a strand of my hair, and held a giant African snail.
I also attended a group therapy session, during which a strict doctor urged us to share our secrets and fears, and drank bitter mushroom tea (not psychedelic I hope), vodka and schnapps.
Together with the other 34 ticket holders of the daily performance in Hamburg-Altona, I had checked in as a prospective patient in a fictitious facility for people exhausted by modern life.
Intimate and visionary at the same time, “Die Ruhe” was by far the most unusual and daring title of the remarkable first live theater gathering since the beginning of the pandemic. After spending the last two years online, the festival celebrating the best of German, Austrian and Swiss theater has revived with a diverse and eclectic lineup that showcases the creativity, ingenuity and tenacity of German-speaking theatre highlighted 2021.
Originally staged here by Deutsches Schauspielhaus, “Die Ruhe” was the brainchild of SIGNA, a Copenhagen-based performance collective led by artist couple Signa and Arthur Köstler, who have specialized in large-scale, site-specific performance installations for the past two decades . SIGNA was invited to the Theatertreffen in 2008 with an eight-day performance in a former marshalling yard in Berlin. As the installation was too complicated this time to be moved to Berlin, where all other Theatertreffen performances were held, in a break with tradition, ‘Die Ruhe’ was installed in the former post office in Hamburg, where it was originally shown in November.
With the other members of my small group, I was taken through a spooky sanatorium whose residents—patients and doctors alike—all seemed to have suffered a mental breakdown. Upon entering the post office, we were greeted at the institute by being asked to lie down on mattresses on the floor. Shortly thereafter, we stripped off our clothes and slipped into the baggy institute uniform of gray hoodies and sweatpants.
As I was led with the group through dimly lit corridors and rooms – including a simulated forest filled with damp earth and dry leaves – by a frail and haunted leader, Aurel, it became clear that the institute was the center of a menacing and shamanistic cult. Across the multiple floors of the post office, SIGNA and their large cast (there is an almost equal number of paying attendees and institute members) articulated a holistic worldview for the cult-like institute, complete with an origin story and a staunch creed that even its followers have the meek Aurelius , were fanatically devoted: a vision of the return of paradise symbolized by becoming one with the forest.
Aesthetically, this stylishly crafted, immersive experience appeared to be film-inspired: contemporary dystopian horror films, including Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster and Ari Aster’s Midsommer, as well as masters of atmospheric horror, Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch.
A marathon immersion into a complex and complicated world, The Tranquility resembled another more recent and notorious project: the scientific institute DAU, developed by Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky in Kharkiv, Ukraine between 2009 and 2011 and recreated in Paris in the Year 2019. Like that controversial performance, “The Tranquility” contained deeply unsettling elements: a strong, pervasive atmosphere of menace, as well as a challenging (and sometimes exhausting) format that forced the viewer-participant into a disturbingly close confrontation with cruelty, manipulation, and violence .
Back in Berlin, none of the other Theatertreffen shows I’ve seen came close to Die Ruhe for sustained intensity and startling originality, but the productions I saw were of consistently high quality and formally innovative.
One of the most striking characteristics of the cast was how deep and intelligent many of the shows were musically. In some of the best pieces, live music played a fundamental role in creating a distinctive aesthetic and meaning. By reflecting on theater practice in such a musical way, it seemed as if many of the festival’s directors were pushing the limits of language.
From the hits of Britney Spears and Meat Loaf sung by the cast of Christopher Rüping’s Das Neue Leben – whither do we go from here to Barbara Morgenstern’s powerful and haunting original score for Helgard Haug’s All Right. Good Night”, a hypnotic and largely wordless production about the 2014 Malaysia Airlines disaster, this theatrical gathering seemed to insist on the primacy of music to evoke and enrich mental and emotional states.
The most amazing show on a traditional stage was Claudia Bauer’s ‘humanistää!’, a surreal and hauntingly inventive exploration of poetic and dramatic texts by experimental Austrian writer Ernst Jandl.
Bauer is one of Germany’s leading directors, and she created this breathtaking theatrical immersion in Jandl’s playful linguistic cosmos at the Volkstheater in the poet’s hometown of Vienna, where I saw the production a few months ago. (It remains in the company’s repertoire and is also available for streaming on the Theatertreffen website until September.)
In “humanistää!”, 10 of Jandl’s works gain new vitality through conventional monologues, stage projections and elaborate vocal interludes reminiscent of Jandl’s radio plays. Bauer complements the flood of highly musical lyrics with stunning visuals and energetic performances that fit beautifully to the rhythm of Jandl’s sound poems.
Eight actors perform energetic and highly choreographed pantomimes and dances Patricia Talacko’s shapeshifting set spectacularly lit by Paul Grilj. Peer Baierlein’s driving music, played live, accompanies the performers while both their bodies and their voices wind through Jandl’s language games.
Far more straightforward but no less inflammatory, the lyrics and music combine in Israeli director Yael Ronen’s Slippery Slope, an English-language musical about Cancel culture with infectious songs and vulgar lyrics by singer-songwriter Shlomi Shaban. When it premiered at Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater in November, it was an instant cult sensation. It’s not difficult to understand why.
The plot, about a disgraced Swedish pop star (Lindy Larsson) trying to stage a comeback and his protégé (Riah Knight), whose meteoric rise is inversely proportional to their mentor’s downfall, is both sordid and hilariously entertaining.
In addition, the show’s five actors can actually sing – a real rarity in German theaters – and belt out Shaban’s rousing and cheeky numbers with enthusiasm. For perhaps the first time that I can remember, musical entertainment at Broadway level comes to a German theater. (It is the only production by a Berlin repertory theater at the festival.)
Cultural appropriation, political correctness, #MeToo debates, and social media trolling are gently skewered in a production that’s eye-popping and unabashedly glamorous. At the same time, it’s all so wacky and schlock-packed that there’s little danger of anyone taking offense at this vulgar and punchy musical burlesque. Though its themes are hauntingly contemporary, Slippery Slope treats them with a lightness and wit rarely found in theater here. I’m glad that the Theatertreffen jury, if there was any high-minded group of trendsetters at all, chose him alongside the festival’s more straightforward entries. It’s a sign of their belief in theater’s ability to frighten, provoke and, yes, entertain.
Until May 22 at various theaters in Berlin and at the parcel post office in Hamburg; www.berlinerfestspiele.de.