Dramatists like Schimmelpfennig – and companies that present and interpret their work with the care Apollinaire demonstrates here – provide an invaluable act of cultural diagnosis.
Winter Solstice by Roland Schimmelpfennig. Translation by David Tushingham. Directed by Brooks Reeves. Presented by Apollinaire Theatre Company at Chelsea Theatre Works, Chelsea, MA, through March 11.
By Ian Thal
Five adults take seats on a minimalist stage of black with white paint drippings on the floor (Roland Schimmelpfennig’s script is set in a German home whose antiques and contemporary trappings are described through the narration.) They appear to be producers either discussing the script or an early cut of a film, with some eye towards passing on notes to the filmmaker. Ominously, one of the panel members notes that the characters in question are educated liberals who have never voted conservative.
The audience is introduced to the drama’s characters. Bettina (Lindsay Beamish) is a dancer, illustrator, costume designer, and independent filmmaker – possibly the alter-ego of the artist who is making the film under discussion. Her husband Albert (Brian McCarthy) is a historian and sociologist who has written extensively on Nazism and anti-Semitism. Both dread the possibility that Bettina’s mother Corina (Maureen Aducci), who is visiting for Christmas, might extend her stay another two weeks so she can attend their daughter Marie’s (Ambjörn Elder) birthday.
An expected visitor arrives at the door. Rudolf (Phil Thompson) is an older gentleman whom Corina met on the train journey and invited to come by. Corina is charmed by the man’s doting attention as well as his vaguely sophisticated romantic allusions to a European past as described in literature and opera. There’s also the exotic attractions of his childhood in Paraguay (though he insists he is not Paraguayan, dismissing them with prejudicial descriptions). Bettina, who is at first annoyed Albert would let a stranger into the house, soon comes around when she sees her mother is actually happy.
Rudolf is the very model of a well-mannered guest, skillfully playing compositions by Bach, Beethoven, and even some Chopin on the piano Albert inherited from his father. Were Rudolf but a lothario preying on Corina’s desire to feel desired, Winter Solstice would be a domestic melodrama with a post-modern twist: After all, Albert is having an affair with a younger co-worker, while Bettina’s plans for her next film are complicated by the fact she’s considering having an affair with Albert’s best friend, Konrad, a moody painter caught up in a permanent existential crisis (also played by Elder).
However, this is a Roland Schimmelpfennig play, which exist in a fertilely liminal space between naturalism and overt theatricality. His dramas expose a sinister reality that underpins surface reality. For example, 2009’s The Golden Dragon (Arts Fuse review) first appears to be a witty yet politically incorrect farce set in an Asian-fusion restaurant, but it evolves into an examination of the underground economy generated by international sex trafficking. In Winter Solstice, Rudolf’s pleasant conversation is sprinkled with non-sequiturs that only Albert seems able to decode – or would be able to, if Albert’s consciousness wasn’t being clouded by the infernal interactions between the medication he is taking for a neurological ailment and the holiday booze that is washing the pills down.
Rudolf orates about chivalry and decency, about people being left behind, praises motherhood (and grand-motherhood), and loves classical music as well as European folklore. These topics might seem to be innocuous pieties to American audience, but they are the holy shibboleths of European fascists who have always been, at heart, romantics. The authoritarian stain is insinuated in his celebrations ofTristan and Isolde and Nordic pagan rites (as a boy he had a horse named “Loki”). He notes with surprise that Chopin, a Pole, could produce a body of work comparable to the great German composers. (Echoing Richard Wagner’s essay “Jewishness in Music,” he insists that there are no “Jewish Composers.”) Rudolf seduces Corina with his old-fashioned eccentricity; he seduces Konrad with a quasi-Heideggarian discourse on the work of artists.
As an actor, Brooks Reeves is a known quantity to Boston-area audiences. With Winter Solstice he makes his local premiere as a director, and while he admits to relying on Apollinaire artistic director Danielle Fauteux Jacques for directorial advice (Jacques serves as lighting designer in this production) he nonetheless demonstrates a strong sense of how to navigate his cast through a slippery and subversive text.
And this production sports a capable cast: Thompson lays on the polite charm, dramatizing how fascism not only appeals to those with social grievances but the existential anxiety that afflicts the educated, cultured, and civilized. Each member of the cast member shows how he or she are vulnerable to Nazism’s promises of purity, immortality, and yearning to reconnect with an imagined tradition of security. Lindsay Beamish’s charismatic Bettina is far too pleased by her personal circumstances (a happy mother and the possibility of an affair) to follow up on her instincts of danger. Aducci is so desperate to feel desired that one understands why she accepts Rudolf’s insistence on calling her by her middle name “Goðrún” (literally “God’s secret lore”) as an affectionate pet name, not a statement of Nordic occultism.
McCarthy’s portrait of Albert is gripping: he is a intellectual trapped in an increasingly disorienting chemical daze while he manages the anxiety of managing infidelity and his scholarly work. Elder is mesmerizing in his dual role as the scampering Marie, who sees Rudolf as a grandfatherly figure, and as the twitchy Konrad, who sees the man as a potential mentor who will help him find a place in the world as an artist.
Costume designer Elizabeth Rocha mostly sticks to nondescript modern dress, though the patchwork knee-length vest she made for Bettina is a pretty quirky creation. Sound designer David Reiffel makes apt use of his expertise with Rudolf’s beloved classical repertoire.
Schimmelpfennig’s Winter Solstice is an important play by a major playwright who, sadly, is under appreciated because of the parochial nature of American theater. The script profoundly illustrates how authoritarianism in general, and fascism in particular, appeals, insidiously, to the emotional and intellectual needs of people we like to think are too educated, too sensitive, and too sophisticated to fall for its monstrous promises. Dramatists like Schimmelpfennig – and companies that present and interpret their work with the care Apollinaire demonstrates here – provide an invaluable act of cultural diagnosis — an x-ray of the cancer in our midst.
This, sadly, is my last review I will file as a Boston theater critic. After I complete this review, I will be in my new home in Washington, D.C. after more than half a lifetime in the Boston area.
I want to thank Fuse editor-in-chief Bill Marx for inviting me to contribute to The Arts Fuse and, over several years of editorial back-and-forth, helped me develop my critical voice. He has been both a friend and mentor. The camaraderie that my colleagues on the magazine has been a joy. The work itself is valuable because the arts are valuable and deserves thoughtful and incisive criticism.
Finally, I want to thank those artists who have aimed for excellence and pushed the boundaries of what Boston’s theater scene can offer – some of whom are named in my final review.
Our nation’s capital has a vibrant theater scene, and I am looking forward to the possibilities it offers.
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. 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 The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.
Note from a Grateful Editor: Ian will be missed, and not only as one of the mainstays of the magazine’s stable of theater reviewers. He attended a variety of theater productions over the years, but it was his commitment to smaller theater companies that make his critical voice near irreplaceable. He was indefatigable in his commitment to covering theater troupes on the margins — and writing with knowledge, affection, and high critical standards about what he saw. At a time that criticism in the media is shrinking at an alarming rate — or enthusiastically dumbing down — his reviews were smart and incisive, concerned with more than just registering a consumer guide verdict. He saw, as I do, that criticism should be part of the cultural dialogue, raising issues and challenging theaters to do better. He was a sharp feather in the cap of The Arts Fuse.