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Beate Hein Bennett

Where to Stand:
" Returning to Reims"

"Returning to Reims"
St. Ann's Warehouse, 45 Water St. Brooklyn, NY
Presented by St. Ann's Warehouse and The Schaubuhne, Berlin
February 4-25, 2018
Tuesday - Saturday at 8pm, Saturday the 10th, 17th, 24th at 2pm, Sunday the 18th and 25th at 2pm
Tickets starting at $35, (718) 254-8779, www.stannswarehouse.org

"Returning to Reims." Photo by Teddy Wolff.

The Schaubühne Berlin and Director Thomas Ostermeier have presented theatrical surprises all over the world for several decades, whether with classics, such as Shakespeare's "Richard III" (2016), Ibsen's "Nora" (2003), or "Hedda Gabler" (2006)—all three productions were part of BAM's New Wave Festival-- or presently with a performance that cannot be categorized by any conventional theatrical criteria. "Returning to Reims" can best be described as a hybrid of performance strategies, chief among them, of course, the three live actors on stage. However, documentary video footage forms the large backdrop to the live performance on stage: there is author/memoirist Didier Eribon returning to his childhood home outside Reims; still photographs of Didier's family; archival footage of significant political events during the 60's as well as current events in France and Germany; and finally, personal photographs and home videos of Nina Hoss, the main actress on stage, and her father, Willy Hoss, one of the founders of the Green Party and a prominent political activist in Germany who represented working class and environmental interests beginning in the late 60s. So what does the audience witness in the course of two uninterrupted hours while literally confronted with the performance of "Returning to Reims?"

As the audience is getting seated, we vaguely see and hear two men chitchatting in a sound booth behind glass off stage left. At one point they leave to get coffee and turn off the lights. The open part of the stage is a recording studio with a desk and high chair in the middle—a small monitor and recording microphone set up by the desk. Upstage right a sofa, a coat rack, a movable stuffed armchair, and a small table with a coffee machine. The set design by Nina Wetzel is realistic functional and aesthetic with the surrounding walls constructed of slatted wood and a couple of lit signs, "Silence," "Recording," and "Exit" above the upstage center door in and out of the studio. The center of the upstage wall is a huge screen for the video projections. While the lights are out, Nina Hoss (Katy) enters, switches on the light, calls a few times "hello," obviously looking for somebody, settles down by the desk, and starts to read from the script on the desk. As the coffee machine gurgles in the background, she looks around somewhat perturbed and asks "Who’s there?" A voice answers darkly with theatrical "Hamlet" gloom, "I am thy father's spirit." The men have returned to the soundbooth.

It is a joke but it is also precisely the central issue of the text: Didier Eribon's reckoning with himself through his relationship with his father, and, by extension, the larger social relationship between generations who move from one socio-economic class into another, or more precisely, the fraught relationship between the working class and the "bourgeoisie." (In Europe there is traditionally a sharp cultural divide between the industrial working class and the university educated professional class; in the United States the social divide among classes is more determined by economic and racial prejudicial criteria.) Didier Eribon, a French social philosopher and public intellectual, grew up in a poor working class family in a suburban banlieu outside Reims, originally built as inexpensive housing for industrial laborers and their families. He is the only one in his family who attended secondary school and went on to university; moreover, he is openly homosexual. His intellectual and cultural interests, his education and his sexual orientation alienated him from his father whose own brutalizing life in the factory made him intolerant and homophobic. Didier returns to his home, visits his mother, but never goes to see his father who is institutionalized with Alzheimer's disease. His entire text is a meditation about his personal struggle with identity in terms of sexuality and class. He attempts to understand and analyze the larger sociopolitical movement in France of the working class (including his parents) from having been staunch supporters of the Left (socialist or communist) to having become followers of Marine Le Pen’s extreme nationalistic Right. This type of rumination may seem rather strange for any theatrical proceedings. However, as Nina Hoss reads the text in an unadorned voice, Eribon's interior conflict unfolds before the listener while behind her the video visualizes the external circumstances of his observations.

Thomas Ostermeier and Sebastien Dupouey filmed Eribon's journey, as he is taking the train to Reims and enters his childhood home to visit his aging mother who brings out boxes with photographs. The video, interspersed with selective personal and archival footage, presents a parallel drama, a kind of augmented perspective to the written/read text. The live performance of Nina Hoss's delicate reading is balanced by Eribon's silent presence in the video—the camera draws in very close to his profile, and we sense his inward gaze. I found myself drawn into the interplay between the video and the reading. The sound design by Jochen Jezussek and music (more like soundscapes) by Nils Ostendorf help to meld the dichotomous performance strands together.

"Returning to Reims." Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Performing together with Nina Hoss are the two men we see and hear first in the sound booth. Bush Moukarzel plays Paul, the Director of the Video Project and Ali Gadema plays Toni, the Sound Technician and Manager of the Recording Studio. These two characters are interesting foils to Nina Hoss. When they come out of the booth to argue, discuss, and joke with the Actress, there is suddenly the spontaneity of a theatrical scene. At one point Ali Gadema is even cajoled into presenting a full blown rap interlude that draws applause from everyone. (Gadema is a professional rap poet/performer.) In fact, he is playing the authentic "working class" man who lies quietly on the couch but not included during the hot discussion between Director Paul and Actress Katy about the working class—a marvelous ironic directorial Ostermeier touch. Bush Moukarzel plays the slightly chauvinistic male Director/artist/intellectual and Nina Hoss is the sensitive professional Actress who, in the course of reading the text, uncovers her own feelings and memories about her father, Willy Hoss, a welder/communist/union leader/founder of the Green Party. In the end, she is no longer Katy but performs herself, sharing the working class history of her father. A video (transferred from her Smartphone to the large screen) shows him in his later years working with a native tribe deep in the Amazon rainforest as he shows how to procure clean water with simple means and rotate crops for sustenance.

At one point Nina Hoss raises the question: "Are we doing enough?" It is a variation of the famous question, "What’s to be done?" asked over a hundred years ago by Lenin. Perhaps the last verbal image uttered in the performance might suggest an answer, namely to be "the rock in the surf," a translation of the honorary name given by the native tribe to Willy Hoss. When I attended, the audience was quiet and fully attentive, a sure sign that the text and the non-theatrical performance touched a chord in our time of hyped sensations.


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