Midway through Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance,” a character lashes out at E.M. Forster, the British author of “Howard’s End,” who appears as a spiritual guru to the play’s protagonists.
“Why should we listen to you lecture us about fearlessness and honesty? You were never honest about yourself,” the character screams, excoriating Forster for spending his long life in the closet.
When “The Inheritance,” a seven-hour intergenerational saga about gay men in New York, opened in London in 2018, it was praised to the heavens. When the production transferred to Broadway a year later, there was far less critical love.
This month, a reprise of the first German production of “The Inheritance” kicked off the annual Theatertreffen, a showcase of the best German-language theater, for which organizers selected “10 remarkable productions” from 461 theatrical premieres in Germany, Austria and Switzerland that debuted last year. The ethics of storytelling and of responsible representation emerged as unofficial themes of the lineup.
Lopez’s skill as a dramatist comes through in Hannes Becker’s translation, but the lyricism of his prose less so. Despite the impressive plotting and memorable characters, “The Inheritance” often fizzles during its generous running time. And the play’s cliché-riddled depiction of New York — an entire scene consists of little other than a lesson in how to order correctly at Peter Luger, the celebrated steakhouse — often had this New Yorker rolling his eyes.
In the end, the production, which hails from the Residenztheater in Munich, is redeemed by heroic performances from the company’s ensemble. It’s a tough call, but for my money Vincent zur Linden gives the evening’s most indelible turn: Playing both the aspiring actor Adam and the hustler Leo, zur Linden shifts between coyness, arrogance and twitching brokenness. As Eric Glass, the play’s central character, Thiemo Strutzenberger fills a bland role with emotional complexity. And Michael Goldberg, one of the troupe’s older members, inhabits the play’s two mentor-like figures, Forster and Walter Poole, with avuncular gentleness and secret sorrow.
Theatertreffen loves a good theatrical marathon, like Frank Castorf’s seven-hour “Faust,” seen here in 2018, or Christopher Rüping’s even longer “Dionysos Stadt” a year later. Yet sheer length does not an epic make. Compared to those gutsy avant-garde extravaganzas, Philip Stölzl’s sleek, handsome production of “The Inheritance” felt tame.
When I returned to the festival several nights later, it was for a production much more in line with the formally daring, conceptually knotty theater more commonly found at Theatertreffen: “The Bus to Dachau,” a coproduction between the Dutch theater collective De Warme Winkel and the Schauspielhaus Bochum theater in western Germany.
Subtitled “a 21st century memory play,” this absorbing production takes a singular and idiosyncratic approach to confronting the Holocaust through art, and asks what form commemoration and education will take once all of the survivors are gone.
Featuring audience participation and live video — including blue-screen effects and Snapchat filters — the production tackles its weighty themes with an off-kilter mix of irreverence and severity. As the actors feel their way through the material, they explore the moral implications of depicting the Holocaust onscreen and how Germany’s culture of memory can carry a whiff of arrogance and even, perversely, of possessiveness.
Yet while “The Bus to Dachau” found compelling ways to dramatize its risky and sensitive themes, another aesthetically bold production at Theatertreffen was ultimately less successful at bringing unlikely material to the stage.
That work, “The Ego and Its Own,” from the Deutsches Theater, was one of two shows on the lineup that originated at Berlin playhouses. (The other was the choreographer Florentina Holzinger’s latest freak-out vaudeville-style revue, “Ophelia’s Got Talent.”)
Inspired by an 1844 paean to radical selfishness by the German philosopher Max Stirner, the abstract production finds six actors cavorting on a white spiral ramp that resembles the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The play’s director, Sebastian Hartmann, a festival favorite, and the composer PC Nackt fashion a musical revue from Stirner’s opus that is equally arresting and bewildering.
The actors intone and belt out slogans from the 19th-century text while Nackt and a drummer accompany them with a wild, mostly electronic score. Stark lighting, live video, fog and even 3-D projections contribute to the trippy expressionistic atmosphere. But despite the constant multisensory stimulation and energetic performances, it quickly grows tiresome. It’s a trip, to be sure — but I’m not sure how it illuminates Stirner’s influential and contentious ideas.
Controversy often attends the works Peter Handke, the Austrian who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2019. For many, Handke has been tainted by his sympathy for Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian war criminal. The news of the writer’s Nobel win was met, by some, with disbelief, and his 2020 play “Zdenek Adamec” premiered at the Salzburg Festival under the threat of protest. Still, Handke, now 80, continues to publish and be performed at an impressive clip.
His latest text for the stage, “Zwiegespräch,” was published as a book shortly before its world premiere at the Burgtheater in Vienna. The author dedicated the dramatic dialogue to the actors Otto Sander and Bruno Ganz, the stars of the Wim Wenders film “Wings of Desire,” which Handke wrote the screenplay for; much of this brief, poetic text is concerned with the essence of acting and storytelling. There is also a sense of fraught struggles between grandfathers, fathers and sons.
At Theaterteffen, “Zwiegespräch” will be performed on Saturday and Sunday as one of the festival’s closing productions. Not long ago, it headlined another one of Germany’s main theater festivals, “Radikal Jung,” at the Volkstheater, in Munich, which is where I caught it last month.
The dazzling production, overseen by Rieke Süsskow, a young Berlin-born director, heightens the dialogue’s intergenerational conflicts. She sets her production in a nursing home and distributes Handke’s text to a cast of actors playing frail residents and their sinister caregivers, somehow creating a convincing dramaturgy without clearly differentiated characters or a conventional plot.
Much credit is due to her stage designer, Mirjam Stängl, and her ingenious set, a succession of folding panels that expand and contract over the width of the stage like a fan, and Marcus Loran for his hallucinatory lighting design. Thanks to the attentive artistry of Süsskow and her team, Handke’s 60-odd page pamphlet comes to life in an emotionally resonant performance about memory, loss, regret and the nature of art.
Separating the art from the artist shouldn’t mean giving artists a free pass. In the context of this sensitively paced and finely wrought production, however, there seemed little doubt that Handke is attuned to the moral responsibilities of storytelling.
Through May 29 at various venues in Berlin; berlinerfestspiele.de.
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