Well-Made, and Massively Weird: A New Theater Season in Berlin

It may be less polished and more rough-hewed than in New York, London or Paris, but Berlin’s theater scene is uniquely diverse, unpredictable and boundary-pushing. Buoyed by lavish public subsidies and boasting a fleet of remarkable actors and daring directors, it is also uncommonly accessible, thanks to low ticket prices and the growing popularity of English surtitles.

This season, Berlin’s five main repertory theaters will present a total of 87 premieres, 29 of them at the Deutsches Theater, a storied playhouse that opened in 1883. Its new artistic director, Iris Laufenberg, opened her tenure by programing the German-language premiere of Suzie Miller’s “Prima Facie,” a recent hit on Broadway and the West End that won Tony and Olivier Awards, including for its star, Jodie Comer.

The Hungarian director Andras Domotor stages the one-woman play as a chamber drama, with minimal props, stark fluorescent lighting and lots of empty space for his star, Mercy Dorcas Otieno. While the staging embraces a degree of abstraction rarely seen in commercial theater in London or New York, the show is also a vehicle fora prodigious and fearless actress.

Otieno, who was born in Kenya, delivers a sweaty and emotionally naked performance as a lawyer who defends men accused of sexual assault, and then finds herself the plaintiff in such a case after she is raped by a colleague. She carries this intense 100-minute-long show on her capable shoulders and commands our attention long after the absorbing drama of the play’s first half gives way to clunky speechifying toward the end of the evening.

A more compelling and disquieting exploration of sexual assault and trauma is “In Memory of Doris Bither,” written and directed by Yana Thönnes and running at the Schaubühne. The play is based on the true story behind the 1982 film “The Entity,” a hit horror flick that starred Barbara Hershey as a woman who claimed she was sexually assaulted by a malevolent spirit occupying her house in Los Angeles. In 1974, Bither, a single mother living with her four children, was at the center of a sensational investigation into paranormal activity that Hollywood later served up for entertainment.

Performed in a mix of German and English (with surtitles in both languages), “In Memory of Doris Bither” does not so much recreate the alleged haunting as examine how the case — and the success of “The Entity” — reverberates. On Katharina Pia Schütz’s sparse set, the interior of a sterile suburban home, a wash of pink wallpaper, carpeting and curtains, the actors Ruth Rosenfeld, Kate Strong and Heinrich Horwitz obsessively sift through memories and try to make sense of Bither’s torment. The play’s horror, it becomes clear, is not supernatural but psychological.

My only complaint about this absorbing and uncanny show is that it ended abruptly after 70 intense minutes. Then again, the play’s unfinished quality, its lack of resolution, may be intentional: Bither, who died in 1999, claimed the haunting was real until the very end.

Heinrich Horwitz, Ruth Rosenfeld, and Kate Strong in “In Memory of Doris Bither” at Schaubühne.Credit…Philip Frowein

At the start of this busy theater season, new plays by two leading German-language writers were elevated by young, dynamic directors who crafted fluid and stylish productions for texts that were rather uneven.

The novelist and playwright Rainald Goetz shot to prominence 40 years ago with the novel “Insane,” a nightmarish odyssey through a madhouse. Ever since, he has been a bad boy of the German literary scene, known for a sprawling literary blog and a novel about ’90s techno culture. His latest, “Baracke,” is a poetic, rambling and infuriatingly undramatic play about German history, family violence and the impossibility of finding love.

For the work’s world premiere at the Deutsches Theater, theyoung Swiss director Claudia Bossard has served up a stylistically varied, epoch-spanning staging that provides a gloss on Goetz’s epic grouse while sometimes subverting it. Nine intrepid actors courageously follow their director into battle, even if the stakes of Goetz’s stream-of-consciousness text aren’t always clear.

Over at the Berliner Ensemble, there was more focused critique in the prolific German-Swiss writer Sybille Berg’s “Things Can Only Get Better” (“Es kann doch nur noch besser werden”) a dystopian parable about A.I. and the Metaverse taking over our lives. It’s somewhere between a screed, a cautionary tale and a blackly comic satire.

Perra Inmunda, Amelie Willberg and Meo Wulf in “Things Can Only Get Better.”Credit…JR Berliner Ensemble

The director Max Lindemann floods the stage with digital projections, while actors with illuminated smartphones glued to their hands cavort jerkily on a rotating platform. The characters receive an endless succession of Amazon packages, praise the “great men who have made our lives so easy: Bill, Jeff and, naturally, Elon” and brag about using ChatGPT to write plays. Everything Berg says does seem worrying, but her targets are a bit obvious and the dialogue is often glib.

Like with “Baracke,” the production comes to the rescue, with movement, light, outlandish costumes and eclectic music by the Swiss D.J. Olan! It’s another step in the right direction for the Berliner Ensemble, the playhouse that has recently cast off its conservative reputation and emerged as one of the Germany’s most interesting theaters.

It has become de rigeur to bemoan the loss of Berlin’s gleefully anarchic and experimental side, most clearly represented, perhaps, by the recent transformation of a famous former squat into the slick photography exhibition center Fotografiska. But Berlin can still be relied on to deliver some sheer artistic lunacy.

“Baracke” at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin.Credit…Thomas Aurin

“Toter Salon” is a monthly series of short performances written and directed by Lydia Haider and performed in an intimate venue at the Volksbühne theater. During the most recent installment, “Blut,” Haider stood in front of a coffin and officiated a gleefully blasphemous mass, which was frequently drowned out by the droning and often earsplitting score, by the Austrian electronic music artist Jung An Tagen.

In her satanic priest garb, Haider also approached the spectators with an ice bucket full of white wine spritzer, which she drizzled into the mouths of willing audience members. For those unwilling to get down on their knees to receive her communion, there were Bloody Marys in plastic shot glasses. Sloppy, underdeveloped and massively weird, the hourlong performance was an endurance test.

Yet suffering though the plumes of cigarette smoke, cheap booze and earsplitting music, I was oddly pleased that Berlin’s theater scene could accommodate both this level of experimental insanity and a well-made play like “Prima Facie.” Berlin may have lost much of its famed wildness, but at least when it comes to theater, there’s something for everyone.

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