Our Marvelous Maud Rozee, theatre critic and German translator extraordinaire, reviews this weekend’s production of Katzelmacher. Read on to get cultured.
Katzelmacher is a German slur for an immigrant worker. The play centers on a group of working class friends in 1960’s Berlin as the arrival of a Greek worker in their housing complex highlights the chaos and violence in their lives. Written by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1969, it shows how, in an unhealthy, fascist society, social and personal relations become fragmented and violent. Barnard Theatre Department’s short production portrayed this harsh message excellently, with ambitious design, clever direction, and outstanding performances.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s sets stretched the Minor Latham Playhouse’s capacity to its limit. Maldonado created an impressive variety of settings, from a dingy, graffitied bathroom stall to a lounge with light fixtures which flew in and out on their own electric cables. The effect of snowfall on stage was particularly impressive. His costumes looked natural, yet helped the audience understand the essential differences between Elizabeth, the employer, Jorgos, the foreigner, and the others. Elizabeth Rhodes’s music and Stacey Bogg’s lighting gave added a foreboding edge to scenes, and kept the audience engaged and excited during transitions, of which there were many. This was perhaps Katzelmacher’s greatest weakness. Because most of the scenes were short, it felt like we spent almost as much time watching the actors set up a scene as we did watching them act it.
Despite this, Gisela Cardenas’s strong direction kept Katzelmacher riveting. Actors stayed in character even as they rearranged furniture. The short scenes never lost the audience–it seems that things kept moving rather than stopping and starting. It was especially clever to have two scenes going on the stage at once, with clues from the lighting as to where the audience’s attention should be. Cardenas got strong performances from her cast, perhaps with the exception of some of the portrayals of violence and sex. When they had to slap or forcefully kiss someone, the actors seemed a little nervous and timid of the brutality the scenes called for. The fight scene, however, choreographed by Monica Blaze Leavitt, was terrifying.
The acting in Katzelmacher was mostly strong. Alex Katz, a thesis performer, gave an immersive and bold performance as Erich though his physicality and voice. The role of the foreign worker, Jorgos, could’ve easily turned to caricature, but Alex Dabertin gave a nuanced and realistic performance. Juliana Fox’s Helga and Piper Rasmussen’s Marie were also compelling. Olivia Levine’s thesis performance was in the smaller role of Elizabeth, but was still excellent.
Katzelmacher was a short play with a strong emotional message about identity and human relationships. There was a great deal of general violence as well as sexual violence against women, and at times it was hard to watch. I appreciated the note given in the program which acknowledged and explained that the production showed “this violence in order to inquire into its causes and consequences.” The Barnard Theatre Department’s Katzelmacher certainly succeeded at that inquiry, and provided its audience with a gripping performance.