20th-Century Rogues’ Gallery Gets a Modern Twist

BERLIN — Sometimes a play needs a change of scenery. Ferenc Molnar’s “Liliom” flopped at its 1909 premiere in Budapest. Four years later, ...

BERLIN — Sometimes a play needs a change of scenery.

Ferenc Molnar’s “Liliom” flopped at its 1909 premiere in Budapest. Four years later, it triumphed in Vienna in a German-language translation that shifted the action from Hungary to the Prater, the large public park in the Austrian capital. But it was another transfer — this time to the coast of Maine — that would provide “Liliom” with its most enduring success: the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “Carousel.”

Now, the Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo has subjected “Liliom” to a more ambiguous relocation, this time a cerebral, rather than a geographic, one. His intense, involving production, which was first seen this summer at the Salzburg Festival and will transfer to the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, Germany, this coming week, proceeds as an act of reconstructed memory.

Mr. Mundruczo is a prolific film and theater director. His staging of Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Requiem” is currently playing at the Ruhrtriennale; his most recent film, “Jupiter’s Moon,” screened in competition at Cannes in 2017. With “Liliom,” he gives one of the most popular modern Hungarian dramas a distinctive treatment that is surprisingly faithful to the original. Perhaps working in translation, with a troupe of North German actors, has helped him remove some of the dust that has settled on Molnar’s “suburban legend” about a rakish, loutish carnival barker who, after death, is given a chance to redeem himself.

In Mr. Mundreczo’s version, the drama of Liliom’s fate is framed by his climactic trip to the hereafter, where he is called to account for his sins, including suicide and domestic violence. Mr. Mundreczo treats this purgatorial waiting room as a re-education center, and Liliom is lectured in the errors of his ways. The production toggles between these exchanges (featuring additional dialogue by Kata Wéber) and the play’s earlier scenes, presented as flashbacks.

Liliom’s memories take on a dreamlike, even hallucinatory aspect, as a pair of enormous white robotic arms methodically sets the stage with lush greenery for Liliom’s first stroll with the young servant girl Julie. When the lovers walk among the plants, a robotic arm holds aloft an illuminated sphere that suggests a romantic moon. Later, Liliom hurries to a robbery that will prove fatal along a narrow treadmill. In addition to moving props, the robotic arms also dispense fog and stage blood. All of this hints at the deliberate, mechanical aspect of memory.

The two stars play refreshingly against type. Jörg Pohl’s Liliom is not a brawny brute, and Maja Schöne’s Julie is no virginal dope. Both are stubborn and strong-willed, yet vulnerable — which is exactly what makes their relationship so combustible. The night of their stroll, their animal attraction before and during a torrid sex scene on a park bench is immediate and persuasive. Equally fierce are the claustrophobic encounters in the couple’s cramped quarters once financial hardship tests their relationship.

Mr. Mundruczo’s filmmaking background is apparent in various “cinematic” effects, including loud, intense music and a lengthy domestic scene where the actors, largely out of view of the audience, are filmed live by a roving camera. But such techniques never overwhelm the sheer presence of the actors, whose vitality seems amplified by the imposing automatons on either side of the stage. The actors skip rope and splash in a pool with ferocious energy, partaking in a physical exuberance that is denied Liliom once he arrives in the beyond.

In this vision of purgatory, Liliom confronts a contemporary cast of characters who teach him lessons in 21st-century mores. They lecture him on toxic masculinity and make him write “I am part of the repressive patriarchy” 100 times on a wall. Through it all, Liliom remains defiant and stubborn, refusing, for instance, to address his companions with their preferred pronouns. Mr. Mundruczo’s depiction of these travelers as uptight and judgmental sometimes borders on caricature, and it often seems to be a commentary on political correctness as much as on Liliom’s behavior.

In the final scene, Mr. Mundruczo follows Molnar, rather than Rodgers and Hammerstein, by withholding redemption from the title character. He also excises the lines where Julie praises Liliom to her teenage daughter. After 16 years, she has neither forgiven nor forgotten her abuse. It’s a message that rings truer than “Carousel’s” in our post-MeToo world. Although Liliom refuses to change, Mr. Mundruczo suggests, Julie has learned to stop making excuses for his brutality.

Crass and violent as he is, Liliom has enormous strength of character. One cannot say the same of the charming antihero of Thomas Mann’s unfinished novel, “The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man,” a comic picaresque about a con artist who charms his way into high society. The book is a dizzying merry-go-round of transcontinental train travel, lovesick women, fabulous playboys and gullible aristocrats. Mann, a Nobel laureate who remains a leading figure in the German canon, chose at the end of his life to revisit his well-worn theme of the artist as immoral and disreputable.

“Fake it till you make it” seems to be the message of “Felix Krull: Hour of the Confidence Man” by the young director Alexander Eisenach, which recently opened Oliver Reese’s third season as artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble.

In his first two years running the theater, which was founded by Bertolt Brecht in 1949, Mr. Reese gave refuge to Frank Castorf, the ousted director of the nearby Volksbühne, by inviting that veteran to put on excruciating productions of “Les Misérables” and Brecht’s own “Galileo.” Mr. Reese now seems to be looking to the future with Mr. Eisenach, a 35-year-old Berlin native whose deconstructive, gleefully archaistic style owes a debt to Mr. Castorf. Mr. Eisenach’s theatrical exploration of Mann’s charming impostor often seems like a Castorf production for the jumpy ADHD generation.

From the opening salvo of an impassioned pantomimed performance of Vivaldi to the giddy, brightly lit gimmick featuring wind and smoke that functions as a grand finale, it’s a starkly theatrical and quick-moving show. At 90 minutes without intermission, it is also far shorter than Mr. Castorf’s productions, which can run 10 hours or more.

Marc Oliver Schulze, a new ensemble member, is wonderful as the charismatic charlatan, and the audience senses the panic that undergirds his efforts to become whatever people around him want him to be. Yet the theatrical world that Mr. Eisenach thrusts him into feels thin and underdeveloped, with dialogue assembled from what one character calls “a box of hackneyed quotations,” and ideas that whiz by like the tennis balls lobbed into the audience during a one-woman game of squash that is Mr. Eisenach’s effort to “break the fourth wall.”

Mr. Eisenach is directing two productions inspired by Mann’s lovable con for the Berliner Ensemble this season. The next iteration, set to arrive in December, is billed as a comedy where the impostor becomes a figure of redemption. If life’s a swindle, it’s little wonder that theater makers are only too eager to stock a rogues’ gallery for our gratification.

“Liliom.” Directed by Kornel Mundruczo. Thalia Hamburg, Sept. 21 through Jan. 2.

“Felix Krull: Hour of the Confidence Man.” Directed by Alexander Eisenach. Berliner Ensemble, through Oct. 31.

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Newsrust: 20th-Century Rogues’ Gallery Gets a Modern Twist
20th-Century Rogues’ Gallery Gets a Modern Twist
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