Theater Review: ‘Polis/Reset’ at the Volksbühne in Berlin

Sing, o muses of the house of unceasing calamities! Over the past three years, the drama behind the scenes at the Volksbühne in Berlin ...


Sing, o muses of the house of unceasing calamities!

Over the past three years, the drama behind the scenes at the Volksbühne in Berlin has surpassed any onstage. To say that the company has struggled would be putting it mildly: Depending on your point of view, the goings-on have increasingly resembled either a Greek tragedy or a satyr play.

Since 2017, dysfunction if not outright misfortune has dogged the venerable theater, which, like most in Berlin, is publicly run. It began when the minister of culture at the time fired the longtime artistic director Frank Castorf, who had led the house for 25 years and was known to rule with an iron fist. Berlin politicians passed the torch to Chris Dercon, a former director of the Tate Modern in London.

Berliners vehemently objected; the theater was briefly occupied by protesters. Feces were left in front of Dercon’s office. He quit only months in and was replaced by Klaus Dörr, who was supposed to fill the vacancy until René Pollesch, one of Germany’s leading dramatists and a veteran of Castorf’s Volksbühne, took over as artistic director in 2021.

Last week, Dörr abruptly resigned over sexual harassment allegations. Yet in the midst of a trying season for theaters worldwide, the Volksbühne has plowed ahead with an ambitious series of premieres inspired by ancient Greek drama and myth called “Polis/Reset.”

Although the cycle examines the relevance of its classical sources from the contemporary perspective of our world’s environmental and economic ills, the themes of unappeased gods, inescapable fates and tragic flaws seem oddly appropriate to the Volksbühne in light of its long-running bad luck.

Half of the eight productions planned for “Polis/Reset” are streaming on the Volksbühne’s website. The shows are a diverse crop, but they all confront, to varying degrees, the existential issues facing humanity in the Anthropocene, the era in which humans are the dominant influence on the natural world.

“Oedipus is the last king of the Anthropocene. This is our last winter. No one will escape this catastrophe,” an actor intones early in “Anthropos, Tyrant (Oedipus),” an associative and sometimes pedantic stage essay by the writer-director Alexander Eisenach. Of the productions in the Volksbühne’s series, this one, loosely based on Sophocles’ Theban Plays, most directly addresses environmental and economic devastation. In the middle of the performance, the marine biologist and climate expert Antje Boetius delivers a lecture on the Anthropocene that is informative, though dry.

I enjoyed some of the snappier slogans, such as “Tragedy has become the language of science” and “Awaking the wrath of the gods is not a metaphor. It’s very real.” But it is possible to agree while still feeling that the show is rough around the edges.

Since it couldn’t be shown in front of a live audience, the theater presented it as a livestream in 360 degrees: It was filmed with an omnidirectional camera, and viewers at home were able to control their perspective of the stage. The effect was kind of cool, although it seemed more like an interesting experiment with technology than a full-fledged production. My internet connection was too weak to view it as intended, in razor-sharp 4K.

Oedipus and the other rulers of the ancient world were judged by their ability to keep nature in balance and the deities happy. The director Lucia Bihler put an environmentally conscious spin on the divine wrath in “Iphigenia. Sad and Horny in Taurerland,” a reworking of Euripides’ two Iphigenia plays that is peppered with cheeky dialogue by the young Austrian writer Stefanie Sargnagel.

In the original, Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and commander of the Greek fleet, sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis to gain favorable winds for sailing. Bihler’s staging suggests environmental parallels: with the deities’ refusal to bestow nature’s fortune on humanity and with the notion of mortgaging the future that child sacrifice represents. In the evening’s irreverent second half, Iphigenia (the young American-born actress Vanessa Loibl) is whisked away to the island of Tauris, where she works in a call center alongside a vulgar, funny gang of women who put up with verbal abuse from prank callers.

Iphigenia’s sacrifice is the preamble to “The Oresteia,” Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy about Agamemnon’s family. The young German director Pinar Karabulut has tackled Eugene O’Neill’s 1931 play cycle, “Mourning Becomes Electra,” which transposes the action of “The Oresteia” from ancient Argos to New England shortly after the Civil War. Although there is much to admire in Karabulut’s muscular production, it turns O’Neill’s tragic cycle into a dreary and sordid soap opera.

On the plus side, the production looks great: sleek and stylish, with colorful costumes and props dominated by reds and blues. The atmosphere of surreal domestic horror is heightened by visual allusions to David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” Those scenes are effectively unsettling, but they also seem irrelevant. Another element that doesn’t quite work is a bracing monologue about race delivered by Malick Bauer, the only Black actor in the company’s performing ensemble. Written by a dramaturge, Laura Dabelstein, the soliloquy is a very politically incorrect disquisition about prejudice in Germany, designed to shake the audience up, among other ways, with the repeated use of the N-word. It’s a powerful text and Bauer delivers it with conviction, but it feels like a forced bid for timeliness.

O’Neill’s play stands in a long line of works refashioned from Greek sources. One of the earliest is the Roman poet Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” written in A.D. 8 and comprising roughly 250 myths. In this epic poem, women turn into trees and birds, drowned men become flowers, and gods transform themselves into animals.

Like “Iphigenia,” Claudia Bauer’s “Metamorphoses [overcoming mankind]” doesn’t strain for relevance. It’s an arresting production that combines surreal pantomime and song. For the majority of the performance, the actors wear blank masks. They become mythical characters through movement accompanied by live music (featuring the accordion virtuoso Valentin Butt) and voice-over narration delivered by actors whose faces are projected above the stage.

“Metamorphoses” proposes the transformative world of myth as an alternative to the Anthropocene. Even though there is much violence in Ovid, including cannibalism and rape, the production holds up the enchanted symbiosis between man and nature as a sort of utopia. Of the Volksbühne’s digital streams, it’s the one with the most rhythm and verve, thanks to skillful filming and editing. It’s also the only one I’m dying to see live once theaters reopen.

“Polis/Reset” is a step toward making the Volksbühne a place for engagé theater that tackles burning issues. Castorf, the former artistic director, didn’t go in for topicality. It’s hard to imagine him ever structuring a season around environmental themes.

The recently departed Dörr deserves credit for replenishing the acting ensemble. This versatile group of 17 has been the most consistently exciting thing about the new Volksbühne, and many of them, including Bauer and Loibl, are prominent in “Polis/Reset.”

It remains to be seen whether Pollesch will be able to lift the curse placed on the house by the theatrical deities when he arrives in the fall. He faces formidable artistic and managerial challenges. I pray that Pollesch, who, like Castorf, favors intense theatrical partnerships with a small group of collaborators, doesn’t send the acting ensemble packing when he takes over. That would be a real tragedy.

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