Great American Plays, With a European Twist | Modern Society of USA

Great American Plays, With a European Twist

Great American Plays, With a European Twist

BASEL, Switzerland — In the United States, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams form a holy trinity of master playwrights. Their works are also well known in Europe, of course, but they are less often performed than the classics of continental drama: for instance, the plays of Ibsen and Chekhov, which are frequently presented in updated or deconstructed productions. Several new stagings at leading playhouses throughout the German-speaking world show what can happen when American classic drama meets European theater practice.

This season, the British director Robert Icke, 32, has set out to conquer the Continent. Just months after his first German-language production, “Orestie” in Stuttgart, won a prestigious directing prize, Mr. Icke, who is the associate director of the Almeida Theater in London, traveled to Basel to direct a new production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”

In London, Mr. Icke’s distinctive productions have drawn praise and condemnation. The Times’s critic Matt Wolf named his recent version of Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” one of the year’s best productions, while a two-star review in The Guardian called it “a parasitic rewrite.” Considering how controversial and edgy Mr. Icke’s past productions have been considered, perhaps the most surprising thing about his “Crucible” (called “Hexenjagd” in German, which means “Witch Hunt”) was how conventional it was.

The austere mid-20th century courtroom (sets: Chloe Lamford) that serves as the setting for the entire production is a nod to the McCarthy-era hearings that inspired Miller’s famous dramatization of the Salem witch trials. At the start of the evening Mr. Icke gives us a single metatheatrical flourish by giving Judge James Hathorne an expanded role as the play’s narrator. Sitting at the bench, he methodically reads out both stage and character descriptions. As the protagonists make their entrances, the women, in particular, object to these introductions.

This is a promising point of departure for play about mass hysteria and the demonization of women, yet the director doesn’t dig any deeper into questions of female agency and representation in the three and a half hours that follow.

Instead, Mr. Icke places the production’s focus squarely on the large ensemble cast. While there are many fine performances, the most astonishing and nuanced one belongs to the Austrian actor Thiemo Strutzenberger. As the Reverend John Hale, the young minister sent to cast the devil out of Salem, Mr. Strutzenberger is hypnotic in his smoldering mix of tension and craftiness; a deceptively mild-mannered outsider whose convictions lead him first to zealotry and then remorse.

The young German actress Linda Blümchen makes Abigail Williams, who accuses her neighbors of witchcraft, a young woman increasingly drunk on her lethal power. And Katja Jung provides many of the trial’s most gripping moments as a charismatic and smooth-talking Thomas Danforth, the head judge. Given all the fiery acting on offer, Mr. Icke’s final-act surprise, a lurid pyrotechnic eruption in the courthouse, seemed a cheap and unnecessary stunt.

The year “The Crucible” had its premiere, 1953, also saw the death of Eugene O’Neill, the only American playwright who has won the Nobel Prize. Three years later, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” the semi-autobiographical family epic that is often considered O’Neill’s masterpiece, was first performed.

At Vienna’s Burgtheater, the stage for Andrea Breth’s desolate and dark production of O’Neill posthumous work is dominated by the skeleton of a whale and littered with rocks. It is a far cry from Jonathan Kent’s 2015 Broadway revival, whose star-studded cast shuffled through realistically detailed early-20th-century interiors.

Ms. Breth, a prolific and influential Austrian director, uses stagecraft to explore the internal landscape of the play’s characters. Against the black expanse of the stage, she clads her cast in white linen, and they shine against the darkness. Although we get the occasional Tom Waits song and the stage rotates frequently, there is little to compete with the fine-chiseled performances that focus our attention on the tragic cycle of addiction, recrimination, and hopelessness that is the characters’ lot.

The magisterial Sven-Eric Bechtolf brings the Tyrone family’s paterfamilias, James, to life with arrogance, humor and a raw tenderness. As the elder son, Jamie, Alexander Fehling shows bitterness, but also furious love, toward his tubercular sibling, Edmund, played by August Diehl (best-known to American audiences for playing a Nazi with an acute ear for accents in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”). Mr. Diehl’s performance as Edmund, in many ways the play’s protagonist, is the production’s most fully realized, and certainly the most poignant.

As the morphine-addled matriarch, Mary, Corinna Kirchhoff is the production’s one weak link. Perhaps her exaggeratedly theatrical performance is meant to illustrate the depths of her illness and delusion. More often than not, however, it just comes across as hammy.

Mary Tyrone longs for a real home, and the wasteland conjured by Mr. Breth and her set designer, Martin Zehetgruber, makes that sense of dislocation palpable. Blanche DuBois, the main character in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” mourns the home she lost even as she tries to make a new one. In Michael Thalheimer’s vertiginous and visceral production at the Berliner Ensemble, we feel Blanche’s unease and shock at encountering her sister Stella and her husband Stanley Kowalski in their sultry, squalid New Orleans digs.

This entire production takes place, claustrophobically, inside a rectangular box (sets: Olaf Altmann) mounted high on the Berliner Ensemble’s stage. This set, which looks like it was carved out of a rusty iron curtain, slopes down steeply, giving the production a dangerous, off-kilter energy: We have a palpable sense of the gravity-defying effort it takes the actors to perform these punishing roles.

Dressed in angelic white, Cordelia Weges’s Blanche always seems to teeter at the edge of the abyss. Like Mary Tyrone, Blanche is a flamboyant but unstable character. Ms. Weges resist the temptation to ham things up, however, imbuing her instead with elegance and pride. The Berliner Ensemble’s versatile Andreas Döhler plays Stanley gruffly, without any rakish charm. Making him such a pure brute brings the play into an uncommonly heartless light, although Williams wrote these characters with more humanity than Mr. Thalheimer seems to think they deserve.

By European theater standards, this “Streetcar” is none too radical. Indeed, like his counterparts in Basel and Vienna, Mr. Thalheimer is faithful to the script in a way that many other directors working here — and specifically in German-speaking theaters — are not. Perhaps this is an acknowledgment of the skill and precision with which these playwrights draw their characters and fashion their dialogue. When the text’s this good, why mess with it?

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