Canadian company One Little Goat, which specializes in poetic theater, has brought to New York a textbook case of how an exceptional production can spin a brilliant “poetic” script into a crackling drama.
Thomas Bernhard may be one of Europe’s great postwar writers but his plays are rarely seen in the US. This is a shame. The production of his Ritter, Dene, Voss which opened last night at La Mama has percolated since 2006, and it is a thing of finished beauty.
Two sisters, wealthy actresses who perform only what and when they choose, prepare for the return of their tubercular philosopher brother from a sanatarium. Painfully, like the turning of a screw, the sisters exercise the frictions of their lives. Bernhard’s fluid yet joyfully abrupt language (translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth Northcott) is the river from which the true, sad, spiritually ugly faces of the repressed Dene (Maev Beaty) and the looser, spiteful Ritter (Shannon Perreault) swim into startling focus. As Ritter indulges her obsession with reading the newspaper, passive-aggressively complaining about Dene’s bossiness, Dene expands and dresses the dining room table as if by making it bigger and setting it she can sculpt a loving, or at least functional, family into being. When Ludwig finally arrives the tension has reached a high pitch. What will he be like? What will he do?
Equally important, will he spoil the play, so brilliantly constructed so far?
The character of Voss/Ludwig combines elements of autobiography with the life of the philosopher Wittgenstein, but whatever woes his progenitors may have suffered, his pains are turned to comic gold by Jordan Pettle. Into the brittle, stultifying atmosphere of the old mansion blows this swarthy storm of sarcasm and anger surrounding a quiet eye of pitifulness. Both sisters are eternally preoccupied with him, one like a mother, the other like a lover, yet neither can truly help him, not the older sister who wants to take him to a doctor, and not the younger, who hangs on his every word. Like a genius Hans Castorp, Ludwig has left this life behind; the mansion isn’t home for him anymore. No perfect table setting, no embrace, no cream puff baked with sisterly affection can change that, any more than Ludwig’s restless switching around of the family portraits can make these frozen people a happy family.
It’s an old story, of course, one I think of as Plot A, the prime theatrical standby: prodigal family member returns and opens old wounds; after some sort of violence, either real or symbolic, family slouches towards healing. Bernhard’s play first meets, then defies expectations, with enough linguistic flair and dramatic panache for two or three plays. Director Adam Seelig and his superb cast wear this wonderful work like a surgical glove.
Ritter, Dene, Voss plays at La Mama through Oct. 10.
Photos by Dave Beckerman