In a Spirited, Raw Staging, Kleist’s Comedy Gets Dirty

The layers of Matthias Hartmann’s exuberant production, Der zebrochene Krug, peel away amid mudslinging and disguise

On The Town | Peter Quince | December 2011 / January 2012

Michael Maertens attempts to remain stable in Der zebrochene Krug (Photo: Reinhard Werner)

Recently, Michael Maertens has essayed so many leading roles at the Burg/Akademietheater that you’d think they would replace the hinged stage door with a revolving one.  But as Judge Adam in Heinrich Kleist’s Der Zerbrochne Krug, currently at the Akademietheater, he literally outdoes himself – seeming to forget his lines just as his character is trying to fling together an alibi.

Kleist’s 1805 comedy of alibis and inspirations has Maertens, the one judge in a one-judge town, adjudicating a complaint where he is in fact the guilty party – acting both inside and outside the box.  (Picture a frenzied TV "Judge Judy", trapped under a bench, screeching "shut up" to herself.)

The complaint stands: Frau Marthe (Maria Happel) is bent out of shape because, close to midnight yesterday, she found her prized jug shattered in her daughter Eve’s darkened chamber, after the girl’s fiancé Ruprecht (Peter Miklusz) had just hurled some shadowy rival out her window. Frau Marthe and Judge Adam both try to nail Ruprecht for the breakage, but just in time, the neighbourly Brigitte (a birdlike Therese Affolter, the wiriest of live wires) shows up in court brandishing the Judge’s fleecy wig. The Judge, it seems, was trying to extract sexual favors from the credulous Eve (Yohanna Schwertfeger) in return for exempting Ruprecht from a fictional war in Batavia.

After having done his damndest to put the blame on everyone from Ruprecht to Beezelbub, Judge Adam attepts an unceremonious getaway from everyone including the visiting supervisor Walter (Roland Koch) – except that in director Matthias Hartmann’s one arguably false note, it’s a most ceremonious getaway, complete with stiff political handshakes for all save for a suddenly rebellious Eve.

"The Broken Jug"? You guessed it, Kleist was the first deconstructionist. At any rate, no other writer combined his social and metaphysical inquiry with his fascination for red herrings – Marthe’s jug, the Marquise of O’s amnesia, the marionette strings in his brief, ravishing dialogue on the nature of puppet theatre.

Even his tragic plots seem to dance, and his poetry evokes the hands-on ineffability of goose bumps: Alkmene, bringing down the final curtain of "Amphytrion" with the single word "Ach!"

Proffered on a delectably mud-covered stage, Hartmann’s production is an actors’ evening – where every player richly deserves both entrance and exit applause. "High time", many would say: When Jürgen Maurer as Licht pirouettes his right ankle into its rubber boot, when Koch tosses his head in a fit of the preening atop the judge’s lifeguard chair, when Maertens croons "la-la-la-la-la" in a last-ditch effort to feign innocence – they’re mugging. (But you don’t have to be on stage to mug – one gentleman in the first row raised more than an eyebrow when mud kicked from the stage besplattered his tweeds.)

But it’s also an evening where stars collaborate. In fact, this production shows just how elegant an artistic collaboration can seem when every member does his job. Ideally, elegance means simplicity, purity of function, streamed lines. You may never see such elegant mud as in Stéphane Laimé’s mise-en-scène, because the mud is really mud, not some stage designer’s anesthetised take-on mud, and the perfectly quadratic white platform in the middle is really white.

And that’s enough: There aren’t sticks, stones or roots in this mud, just as there are no railings or potted plants on the white platform. (I detected only two lighting cues in these

two hours.) True elegance always means something has been left out. Less cluttered than life, art can let our attention wander just enough so we suddenly see why things work the way they do.

With Adam’s wig snarled in Eve’s arbour, Hartmann outfits the other actors with some delightful toppers – the kind that gave wigs a bad name in the 1970s, after their la-di-da Doris Day era. The superbly unctuous Koch, who ends the play by sinking into the quicksand he’s managed so far to sidestep, resembles a grey-haired Donny Osmond; His own blond tufts peek onto a well-groomed nape. Brigitte and Eve are encumbered – graced – with huge plastic-framed goggle-glasses; Eve’s take a dunk in the mud, and only afterwards can she finally squint out the truth.

The simplicity of Hartmann’s symbolism frees us to explore it – to wade around in the mud as we wish, each in our feckless way. Happel struts delicately towards the white safety zone barefoot, clutching her shoes as carefully as she would her cosmetics kit. But once there, she slides her filthy footsies into their high heels with an oblivious, bourgeois squelch.

Hartmann’s theatrical muscle distinguishes the what of symbolism from the way the actors seduce us into its daydream: Kleist’s red herrings are enacted through poetry by errant, ecstatic thespians. ÷


Der Zerbrochne Krug,

Akademie Theater, 3., Lisztstrasse 1

(01) 514 44-4740

9, 12, 15 and 20 Dec. 2011

Exhibit: Heinrich Kleist

(See Events, p. 24)

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