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“Forever Young”.

Scene from " La bonne âme de Se-Tchouan".
“Forever Young”

a contemporary morality play

by Molly Grogan

“States don’t make war; it’s war that makes States.” As the adage implies, war changes everything it touches and this saying is no truer than in Germany where the bellicosity that twice engulfed the world in conflict has indelibly marked both society and the arts.

Of these, theater is the best poised to react in times of crisis, as writers and directors like Max Reinhardt, Bertolt Brecht, Heiner Müller and Benno Besson have shown, developing drama based on political and social convictions, which has traveled far beyond Germany’s borders. Even in a country long reconstructed and reunified, that tradition lives on at Berlin’s Volksbühne, as may be judged this month during the legendary theater’s brief visit to Paris.

In “Forever Young,” director Frank Castorf’s adaptation of “Sweet Bird of Youth”(1959), Tennessee Williams’ critique of a varicious, narcissistic American society is reexamined in an age of “compassionate conservatism” and Terminator governors. Emphasizing that artistic innovation remains at the core of its vision, the Volksbühne also brings Swiss director Christoph Marthaler who presents an example of his “monuments of standstill” with “Die zehn Gebote” (“The Ten Commandments”).

Born in East Berlin in 1951, Castorf has experienced firsthand war’s fallout on art and society. His early productions of Brecht, Müller, Ibsen and Shakespeare came under the censor’s ax, and it wasn’t until after the fall of the Berlin Wall that he was first allowed to direct in the West. Citing Marx, Hegel and the Rolling Stones as influences, Castorf had nevertheless already made a name for himself as a renegade when he was named director of the Volksbühne in 1993. Under his direction, this venerable institution of East Berlin cultural life uses a multimedia program of “expanded theater” (film, music, literature, theory and online “virtual venues”) to appeal across class and economic lines, while hammering home a politically charged and socially provocative message, in shows like: Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Les Mains Sales” (1998); an examination of the role of the individual in wartime set in Yugoslavia; Dostoevsky’s “The Insulted and the Injured” (2001), which transposed the Russian writer’s novel of bourgeois aspirations to the dehumanizing promiscuity of reality TV; and Mikhaïl Boulgakov’s “The Master and Marguerite” (2002), read as a satire of East Berlin’s traumatic past and its conversion to capitalism.

In “Forever Young,” Castorf turns his caustic humor to Europe’s ambivalent relationship with America — equal parts fascination and repulsion, spinning Williams’ tale of the crossed paths of an aging starlet and an omnipotent politician in the racially segregated Deep South into a contemporary morality play of image management in a country hungry for clips of Britney brides and Top Flight presidents. Castorf’s political engagement is complemented by Christoph Marthaler’s æsthetic experiments. A trained composer, Marthaler is both sensitive to the rhythms of the musical measure and fascinated by theater’s ability to create a time out of time, safe from the demands of an ever-ticking clock. His shows are maddeningly languorous and repetitive for audiences obsessed with speed and efficiency, but are meant to reveal social reality in created moments of time standing still, as in “Die zehn Gebote” — a series of portraits of creatures on the margins of Neapolitan society, by the Italian writer Raffaele Viviani.

Recently removed from his functions as director of Zurich’s Schauspielhaus on account of an artistic vision deemed incompatible with audience tastes, Marthaler joins Castorf in proving — as the latter has claimed — that by demanding that individuals adopt and defend often subversive personal opinion, theater constitutes a formidable “training camp in courage.”

“Forever Young” (in German with French subtitles), Mar 11-14, Thur-Sat at 8:30pm, Sun at 3:30pm / “Die zehn Gebote” (in German with French subtitles), Mar 25-27, Thur-Sat at 8:30pm, MC93 Bobigny, 1 bd Lénine, Bobigny (93), M˚ Bobigny-Pablo Picasso, 8E-23E, tel: 01 41 60 72 72

La bonne âme de Se-Tchouan

Irina Brook’s soaring new production

by Molly Grogan

Written during the playwright’s exile in California at the height of WWII, Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” reads as an allegory for the plague of war on human existence, whose central question remains as troubling now as in 1941: if man is a beast to man, is there any hope for mankind? Brecht’s problem may have found an answer in director Irina Brook’s soaring production of his Chinese fable, starring Romane Bohringer in the double role of Shen Té/Shui Ta, the good-hearted yet disabused prostitute forced to disguise herself as her mercilessly manipulating cousin in order to survive in a world of predators and parasites. With mask play underscoring the struggle between good and evil that rages in the depths of all, as well as an unerring faith in the fundamental benevolence of the individual that carries the director’s work (from “Beast on the Moon” and “Dancing at Lughnasa” to “The Glass Menagerie” and “Juliette and Romeo”), Brook’s “La bonne âme de Se-Tchouan” is a moving tribute to the indomitable human capacity for hope and love.

Mar 4 to Apr 3, Tue-Sat 8pm, Sun 2:30pm, Théâtre national de Chaillot, 1 pl du Trocadéro, 16e, M˚ Trocadéro, 11.50-25E- tel: 01 53 65 30 00