December 9, 2013
Overlapping stories in a Wheel of Fortune
It reminded me of one of the most unforgettable productions in the history of the Festival Internacional de Buenos Aires, Théâtre du Soleil’s Les Éphémères, presented in the 2007. I’m referring to Diebe (Thieves) by the Deutsches Theater Berlin — a German company in this year’s FIBA programme. Diebe is a long stage play with many parallel stories which converge and are interwoven at a certain point. Diebe lasts three hours and a half, and it is some sort of “patchwork” made up of common people’s lives.
The Deutsches Theater is a theatrical institution with a resident, highly-acclaimed ensemble. Its repertoire comprises some 50 productions (including classics, modern classics and also contemporary playwrights). It holds some 30 premières every year. Andreas Kriegenburg is the theatre’s senior director and, in this case, he is also the director of Diebe, written by Dea Loher.
Insurance salesman Finn opens his eyes one morning and realizes he never wants to get up again. His sister Linda has seen a wolf around, which ignites her hopes that her almost bankrupt thermal baths business will be soon part of a nature reserve. Their father, Erwin, once enjoyed normal conversation about the weather or astrology, instead of illnesses, the prevalent topic at the retirement home where he resides.
Monika is a supermarket sales clerk who has been promised a promotion by her boss. Monika will, perhaps, get to run a store in the Netherlands. Thomas, her policeman husband, would come along with her.
Mr. and Ms. Schmidt have the feeling they’re being watched... by an animal? Mira, who is pregnant, doesn’t want to keep her baby until she finds out who her own biological father is. But Josef, the baby’s father, absolutely wants her to keep it.
Gabi and Rainer go apartment hunting... or maybe they’re just pretending. Ira, an older woman, is a sort of Penelope, still mourning her husband, who left 43 years ago. He just went out for a walk, didn’t he?
Dea Loher alternates these individual episodes, and the characters chance upon one another in different situations and meet again in surprising ways, as is the case in films such as Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999).
The protagonists Diebe’s stories are all simple people, even if all of them are slightly peculiar. The situations they get involved in are not monumental incidents, though some ominous or darkly humorous. These are just things that may happen to anyone any given day. But it’s in their smallness that they become transcendent and generate viewers’ empathy. Indeed, the length of the play and the recurring appearance of the same characters help viewers get to know them and better be “more friendly” with them.
The device underlining these recurring events some sort of spinning windmill or “Wheel of Fortune,” a telling definition for these fictional creatures whose happiness can turn to tragedy or vice versa. This “Wheel of Fortune” is installed on the enormous stage of the Martín Coronado Hall at the Teatro San Martín. So the set design is in fact multiple and revolving — the stories are alternately staged on the wheel’s blades and spokes.
The play, then, is constructed as though it it were a movie editing room. The director’s source of inspiration for this device was the mechanism of a water jet bicycle, an image launching the characters on the stage, even if they have doubts about telling their stories. But the wheel is unforgiving and drops them on the stage and then swings them away from viewers’ sight.
The set is minimalist, just some pieces of furniture and stickers that roughly indicate where the characters are, as well as some inscriptions they write on the walls, avoiding a realistic or photographic approach.
As for the characters’ interaction with this complex device, the cast is excellent cast and does a wonderful job. Not only do they have to perform difficult scenes, all full of text. They also have to cope with this moving set, sometimes performing on oblique planes (when the blades or platforms are inclined), defying gravity. This is a symbol of other fights and other struggles, but the performers act as though they were naturally standing or walking on a straight surface.
Another scene where realism is shunned is the occasional Brechtian use of the third person when the characters refer to themselves or their interlocutors. They keep a distance from cathartic or overtly sentimental aesthetics. They do so through humour, even in sad or tragic moments.
According to the director, this scene references master comedian Buster Keaton, as well as joyful swing-jazz music. Also very suggestive, María Elena Walsh’s song Como la cigarra is inserted in this sequence.
In spite of that distance, Diebe has very moving moments, as when one of the female characters explains the title of the play, and what defines all the characters — features that could be found in real-life people too, all victims of the system. The woman says that there are people who, like her, have gone through life cautiously, like thieves.
In Dea Loher’s words, they are surreptitiously sneaking through their own lives, carefully and shyly as if they were not theirs, as if they had no right to be in them. They desperately fight against uniformity and strive to stand out as individuals, but they avoid competition.
Many characters in the play have something in common: their last name, Tomason. Somewhere in the play there is a definition of what a “Tomason” means to the Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa: a type of piece which had a function but has now lost it now, an ordinary but useless object. However, most characters in Diebe find themselves still struggling to find a reason for their presence in this world. Diebe is an example of how theatre never loses its function: creating new poetic universes, once and again.
There are still tickets left for the last performance of Diebe. Run!