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Online, the Show Goes On. But It’s Just Not the Same.


MUNICH — Germany’s robust cultural scene was among the first casualties of the coronavirus. On March 10, the country’s hundreds of theaters and opera houses began shutting down. Stages will remain dark until at least April 19.

As everyday life here has come to a grinding halt, many theaters have moved to offer live and archived performances online, free of charge, creating something like an ad hoc Netflix for German theater.

The Hebbel am Ufer, or HAU, in Berlin is forging ahead with its pre-virus schedule as best it can, by moving its interdisciplinary festival Spy on Me #2 entirely online. Through Sunday, the theater’s YouTube channel will be showing lectures, performances, films and virtual instillations brought together under the heading “Artistic Maneuvers for the Digital Present.”

In a video introduction to the festival’s opening event, Annemie Vanackere, HAU’s director, said that people needed to stay intellectually curious and artistically engaged, “even if cultural events cannot take place physically in these times.” But, while commending the theater for its determination, she said she wondered whether the theatrical experience can really work without the audience present.

It’s a question that’s been on my mind these past two weeks as I’ve sampled recorded productions from all over Germany from the increasingly claustrophobic confines of my living room. Theater is a living, breathing art form whose unique power comes from the proximity of performer to spectator. Sophocles, Shakespeare and Chekhov may speak to us through the ages, but it is the immediacy of live, never-to-be-repeated performance that gets us hooked and keeps us coming back for more. How much of that spontaneous, live-wire excitement can ever come across in a recording?

Onstage, the Berlin Schaubühne is reliably thrilling. A week after closing its doors, the theater opened its archives with Thomas Ostermeier’s acclaimed and well-traveled 2012 production of “An Enemy of the People,” Ibsen’s drama about corruption and political callousness in the face of a public health crisis.

While the play’s themes seemed newly relevant, the verve and fresh energy of Ostermeier’s contemporary staging hardly came across online. I missed the electricity and raw excitement that comes from being within spitting distance of the Schaubühne’s dynamic actors as they bring their artistic leader’s provocative visions to fresh life night after night.

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Credit…Abisag Tüllmann

The following evening, the company streamed a recording of its very first production, from October 1970. Peter Stein, the Schaubühne’s founding director, inaugurated the theater with a collaborative production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Mother.”

Despite the technical limitations of the grainy recording, including some botched audio, I was absorbed by the stark, minimal production and the monumental performance by Therese Giehse in the title role. The historical nature of the recording lent it a more compelling aura than the more recent “Enemy of the People,” but watching the muddy, 50-year-old, black-and-white video seemed closer to unearthing a time capsule than discovering a living work of theater.

From Stein to Frank Castorf, German theater directors have long specialized in lengthy productions. Many of these theatrical marathons have become legendary. Just how well would a grueling endurance test of a production hold up via streaming? Thanks to the German theater website Nachtkritik, which is offering an eclectic streaming lineup, I was able to satisfy my curiosity.

Last week, Nachtkritik partnered with the Staatstheater Mainz to present Jan-Christoph Gockel’s sprawling epic “Ljod” from 2019. Based on the Russian author Vladimir Sorokin’s “Ice Trilogy,” this five-hour production makes for brutal and demanding binge watching. (I was glad to have the luxury of starting and stopping the marathon at will.)

“Ljod” is a satirical, time-tripping soap opera that jumps from the present to the early 1900s and through Nazi and Soviet times along the way. Gockel and his actors achieve a degree of fierceness that is both exhausting and exhilarating, tempered by well-judged doses of humor.

Far more than the Schaubühne streams, this one seemed to capture the spark of live performance in an immediate and exciting way. Perhaps this had to do with “Ljod’s” outsize ambitions, which are both cosmic and cinematic: The more intimate and subtle a theatrical performance, the more difficult it seems to convey these qualities in a recording. Perhaps this explains why the expansive and frequently brutal “Ljod” made the transition from stage to computer screen with relatively little friction.

Two cool and aesthetically distanced productions also confirmed my hunch. Both looked so natural onscreen that you could forget they had ever been live performances.

Susanne Kennedy’s 2019 production of “Three Sisters” streamed on Kammer 4, the new online platform of the Münchner Kammerspiele, where it premiered in 2019. It is a radical deconstruction of Chekhov’s play, done in the director’s rigorously methodical style. The actors all wear masks or face coverings, and we are never quite sure where the dialogue, much of it prerecorded in both English and German, is coming from.

The result is extremely claustrophobic and unsettling. With its robotic, ritualized performances and pixelated backdrops suggesting a video game, this “Three Sisters” is a stifling nightmare for the digital age, and I was pleased to encounter it first on my computer. With its tight close-ups on the masked performers yielding to wide shots of the digitally enhanced stage, I had the impression it might actually work better onscreen than onstage.

A similar sense of strict formal control and emotional deadness pervades another production made available by Nachtkritik: “Tyrannis,” a 2015 production from Theater Kassel by the innovative young director Ersan Mondtag. Like Kennedy’s production, Mondtag’s finely honed and detached theatrical style holds up remarkably when streamed.

In this intricately choreographed work, we peek behind the curtains into the sinister house of some sort of zombie family. The dialogue-free production follows them around as the young and old members engage in banal activities like eating, vacuuming and brushing their teeth, while sound effects like birdsong or a Muslim call to prayer hint at the world outside their stuffy confines.

Impressively filmed, with a calmly menacing style that brings David Lynch to mind, the production has been seamlessly edited into a clammy and feverish tour de force. Like “Three Sisters,” its uncanny and stifling power feels fitting for our present self-isolating moment.

Technology certainly has the power to make us feel less alone during a time of social distancing and quarantine, but there are limits to just how much of the theatrical experience it can transmit. While it may give a taste of great acting and outlandish directing styles, streaming theater falters when it comes to the heart-in-mouth immediacy of a live performance. There’s just no substitute for the real thing.

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