The Whole World focuses on the incoherence that lurks underneath the empowering narratives we tell about ourselves.
The Whole World by Theresia Walser and Karl-Heinz Ott. Translated by Ingrid MacGillis. Staged reading directed by Guy Ben-Aharon. Presented by German Stage at Goethe Institut, Boston, MA, on April 23.
By Ian Thal
The Whole World opens to a couple seated at a table in their dining room. Regina (Marianna Bassham) and Richard (Robert Kropf) are united by a shared ennui – witty and educated, they accept that their most exciting days are behind them — they are resigned to chronic ailments, moderately amused by anecdotes they don’t bother to finish, as when Richard ran through the streets of Paris in his pajamas at five in the morning, how they once stayed in a house next door to the famously eccentric actress Bridgette Bardot, or how they were once the life of the party, always the last ones to depart. But now they invent excuses to decline party invitations, the most recent lie being that they are on an imaginary diet named for medieval composer and mystic Hildegard von Bingen.
Suddenly, their downstairs neighbors Tina (Deb Martin) and Dolph (Thomas Kee), whose party they have fibbed to avoid, knock on the door. They have come up to entice Regina and Richard — by way of schnitzel in gravy and an inexpensive wine with a cutesy name — to join the fun. The conversation quickly becomes a satire of bourgeois respectability in the early 21st century. Tina and Dolph harp on the joys and responsibilities of parenthood, even though they send their children to far away summer camps and confess that they envy the childless life of the people upstairs. They are exhibitionists who revel in admitting their infidelities to others — honesty is a badge of honor. They even attempt to psychoanalyze their upstairs neighbors from what they have overheard going on over their heads: after sharing their wild speculations about how their childhoods created the adults they imagine Regina and Richard to be, Tina and Dolph awkwardly admit that they might have been mistaken.
At first, Regina and Richard seem pleased to indulge their visitors, telling them the stories of some of their more exotic adventures, revealing that Richard has been working on his “Scripture” (“schrift” in the original German), a work that claims to convey the “verity and reality” of “The Whole World.” But soon things turn aggressively absurd because Tina and Dolph don’t quite understand what kind of creatures they have in front of them. Richard’s brand of know-it-all treatise has become increasingly unfashionable since World War II. Regina is a proctologist. On one level, she is on the medical lookout for cancers and fungal infections, but she is also the guardian of the asshole, a common metaphor for the uncivil in our midst, as well as the producer of excrement – itself a metaphor for lies.
Because this play is co-authored by Theresia Walser (I am not familiar with the writings of her husband and collaborator Karl-Heinz Ott), it would be foolish to assume anything here should can be taken at face value. Her previous works presented here have toyed with the disjunction between truth and representation. A Little Calm Before The Storm was only obliquely about Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and the problem of evil: the plot gave us three actors — two had played Hitler, the other Goebbels — debating how evil could best be performed on film. Likewise, I Am Just Like You — I Love Apples is about the widows of dead dictators attempting to rehabilitate the public images of their husbands, their regimes, as well as their own. In a 2013 interview I conducted with Walser, she described the Imelda Marcos who appears in the latter play as a “self-portrayal-monster” (“selbstdarstellungsmonster”). So even though The Whole World appears on the surface to be a departure from Walser’s usual question — how do we come to terms with a history of political horrors — there is absolutely no reason not to suspect that Regina and Richard are not ‘self-portrayal monsters,’ though of a somewhat different sort.
Once they have charmed their neighbors, Regina and Richard morph into another theatrical mode: grotesque parodies of their uninvited guests and everything they purport to value. Tina and Dolf’s self-loathing, resentments, and insecurities about their own authenticity surface, and the couple become violently hateful towards one another and their hosts. Hypnotized by their own self-disgust, Tina and Dolph don’t have the strength to excuse themselves and tend to their guests downstairs.
Walser and Ott’s version of middle-class monstrousness isn’t about pointing out how animal urges are trapped under a civilized veneer (Harold Pinter). The play focuses on the incoherence that lurks underneath the narratives we tell about ourselves: it is about the slippage from the innocent self-mythologizing we do to make ourselves the protagonists of our own stories to a condition moves into the realm of pathological lying. The couples do not begin in conflict – Tina and Dolph are seeking friendship with a couple they imagine to be very much like themselves, merely different in an interesting fashion – only to discover that Regina and Richard aren’t even remotely similar to anything Tina and Dolph would care (or dare) imagine existing in the ‘whole world.’ It isn’t a playground conflict or workplace struggle (Yasmina Reza) that incites the psychic savagery between the couples, but the nihilism that lurks underneath the price we pay for our bourgeois comforts. This shouldn’t lead you to think that The Whole World plays like some sort of psychological horror show; as in the plays of Edward Albee, Pinter, and Reza, the audience’s laughter increased with every twisted revelation of disfunction.
Guy Ben-Aharon staged the reading ‘alley style’ with the playing space between two banks of chairs. His first-rate ensemble put on an increasingly physical performance which, beat-for-beat, matched the complex rhythms of the play’s language – especially when the second act slowly built to its violent climax. Bassham’s sarcastic delivery and Kropf’s increasingly maniacal physicality were spot on: the pair provided fine performances as the bored yet erudite couple upstairs who, with a solid nudge, transform into agents of chaos. Tina’s turn from bourgeois self-importance to abject fear and loathing gave Martin a powerful opportunity to display her clowning skills. Kee twisted and curled his body into different shapes, making Dolph’s metamorphosis from gregarious obsequiousness to hysterical man-child a memorable one. It was extraordinary to see such developed choreography in an on-book reading — Walser and Ott’s monsters were a joy to watch.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. Two of his short plays appeared in theater festivals this past summer. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.