“Don’t worry,” a director says to an actress at the beginning of Returning to Reims: “It’s not theater.” It’s a knowing wink — Katy, the actress, is recording the voice-over for a documentary, so she’s free to make mistakes, to stop and go back and rerecord, released from the stage’s obligation to get it right the first time around. But of course, here we are at St. Ann’s Warehouse, settled in, cell phones off, ready to experience the new play in which Katy and her director Paul are characters.
It turns out however that the line is more than an easy laugh. It’s — to steal Paul’s strained description of his own film work — “multilayered.” The line has the feeling of a meta-acknowledgement on the part of Returning to Reims’ own director, the German auteur Thomas Ostermeier, who created this intellectually ambitious, uneven but fascinating, often anti-theatrical piece of theater by adapting the memoir Retour à Reims by the French philosopher Didier Eribon. Hang in there, Ostermeier is saying to us: This thing I’ve made might not be theater… Let’s find out.
Ostermeier, artistic director of the Schaubühne in Berlin since 1999, began his directing career as a young provocateur, directing the German premieres of edgy, shock-laced dramas by contemporary playwrights like Nicky Silver, David Harrower, and Mark Ravenhill. He soon gained international recognition for his visceral adaptations of the classical canon — from Brecht and Maeterlinck to a brutal, mud-covered Hamlet and a vision of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House that ended not with a door slam but a gunshot (Nora marked the director’s American premiere in 2004 at BAM, where he recently returned with a savage, hard-rock Richard III). On the surface, the contained, idea-driven Returning to Reims can feel like a textural departure for Ostermeier. Voices are seldom raised, the utilitarian set by Nina Wetzel is a typical modern recording studio, all drab brown curtains and electrical equipment, and there’s no dirt, blood, or fluids to be seen beyond the bottle of water Katy drinks from as she reads calmly into her microphone. So what led the punk-rock German director to the pensive French philosopher?
Probably Karl Marx. Eribon’s book examines his own painful relationship with the working-class family into which he was born — and especially his estrangement from his aggrieved, bigoted father. He’s meditating on Europe’s 20th-century class struggle and how it has warped into this era’s frightening shift rightward. As for Ostermeier, his directorial style, which he calls “new realism,” is meant as a kind of exposé of capitalist violence and inequity. Memoirist and theater-maker are both fascinated and enraged by, in Eribon’s words, “processes of domination” — the ways in which the haves and have-nots, the oppressors and the oppressed, have come to be. Returning to Reims is thus a particular (and particularly tricky) breed of contemporary drama: the How Did We Get Here Play. Ostermeier is searching, via Eribon’s reflections, for the how and the why behind the what-the-fuck of our current moment’s toxic tidal wave of right-wing populism.
If this all sounds too chewy and theoretical to make a compelling play, don’t be turned off just yet. Ostermeier knows it, and for at least the first half of Returning to Reims he actually uses the lack of conventional drama to craft an enthralling, prodigiously smart piece of live performance that’s part theater, part audiobook, part film. The German actress Nina Hoss (star of Showtime’s Homeland and a Schaubühne ensemble member since 2013) is magnetic as Katy, an actress whose knitted brow and thoughtful cadences reveal how much she truly cares about the material she’s been hired to read. And for over an hour of Ostermeier’s two-hour intermissionless show, read is really all she does. It’s a daring choice, and an effective one.
The premise of Returning to Reims is that Paul, the director, has made a documentary based on Eribon’s memoir (both play and documentary, it should be mentioned, are in English, and the crystalline translation of Eribon’s text is by Michael Luce). Paul’s film begins by following Eribon as he travels to see his mother after his father’s death, then expands into a cinematic examination of today’s political landscape in Europe. Ostermeier himself and Sébastien Dupouey are in fact responsible for Paul’s movie — a moody, beautifully shot mini-documentary that combines footage of the real Eribon with bleak panoramas of the poverty-stricken suburbs of Reims, shots of Paris where the young gay writer dreamed of re-creating himself, and clips from historical film and news footage (the evocative accompanying music is by Nils Ostendorf).
Katy starts into recording the narration for Paul’s film almost immediately, so for a long time, what we’re watching on stage is a film above (the upper portion of the set’s back wall features a large projection screen) and a lone actress below, quietly speaking Eribon’s text into a microphone. And it’s mesmerizing. As delivered by Hoss — her solemn face illuminated by a tiny video monitor where she sees what we see on the big screen — the ideas of Returning to Reims take powerful, hypnotic hold. An image of Eribon’s father rises before us: the oldest of 12 children, a man defined by the poverty he could never escape, who worked two factory jobs, who came home drunk after going missing for two days and threw every glass bottle in the house against the wall; angry, helpless, abandoned by the political left as it moved from Communist ideals to neo-conservative pragmatism, left like carrion for the vultures of the National Front to snatch up; and a bitterly homophobic man who, when he finally saw his gay adult son, then a respected scholar, speaking on TV, broke down in tears, telling his wife, “If there’s any smartass who says anything to me about it” — his son’s sexuality — “I’ll smash his face in.”
“My father,” explains Eribon through Katy, “was overwhelmed by the realization that one of his sons had achieved a nearly unimaginable degree of social success.” The old man’s bigotry, however ingrained, was shaken by witnessing his child accomplish what to him seemed like a miracle: escaping his birth class. “I began to realize,” Katy murmurs into the microphone, “that everything my father had been, which is to say everything I hold against him, all the reasons I had detested him, had been shaped by the violence of the social world.”
Eribon is cracking open the political through the personal. We can’t take on the system in the abstract, in all its unmanageable enormity, until we reckon with our own fathers — until we’re honest about where and who we came from, what privileges and privations built us. Ostermeier, who layers in resonances of Hamlet throughout Returning to Reims, is turning an encounter with a ghostly patriarch into a plea for truth and reconciliation. And such reconciliation must begin, as Hamlet’s meeting with the ghost does, with listening.
Unfortunately, in between recording sessions, there’s little attention being paid in this studio, at least not by the most powerful player. Paul is idealistic and passionate — and very concerned with making a successful artistic contribution to the Resistance-with-a-capital-R — but he’s also taking advantage of the studio manager Toni, a hard-up single dad, by attempting to use the space for free. And he’s the kind of guy who mansplains the concept of mansplaining to Katy. The dramatic conflict — and the dramatic irony — of Returning to Reims bubbles up amongst these three creatives, who are all engaged in putting together a documentary that digs to the heart of the shame and resentment that stem from social inequality, but who are all, to varying degrees, failing to acknowledge the actual social dynamics at play in the room. Whether their tensions are economic (Paul and Toni) or gender-based (Paul and Katy) they’re caught in their own processes of domination. Katy, who’s more than equal to the erudition of Eribon’s material, reveals her own particular programming in the manner in which she argues with Paul: she doesn’t give up, but she also apologizes and qualifies. She’s been conditioned to hesitate by the same system that’s conditioned Paul to hold forth with confidence.
If only these sections of personal conflict were as compelling as the stretches of Returning to Reims in which we’re left alone with Katy and Eribon. The writing in these conversational interludes often sounds clunky, weighed down as it tends to be with topical buzzwords (mansplaining mansplaining, though it paints Paul’s character quickly, is a cheap laugh). Hoss is the only actor who remains utterly natural throughout. Bush Moukarzel as Paul and Ali Gadema as Toni are making valiant efforts, but they feel underdeveloped as they stand next to Hoss, an actress who communicates unknown depths with a momentary flicker of her eyes. Moukarzel’s Paul is frequently straining, especially in a few awkward moments in which Ostermeier decides to break the fourth wall, suddenly demanding that the audience be present in the room as if we’re a kind of TV studio audience. The play’s second half begins with Toni, a talented aspiring rapper, performing two of his raps for us at Paul’s insistence (Gadema is himself a poet and spoken-word artist and has been the front man for numerous bands). Though the content of Toni’s rhymes is smart and relevant — “There’s no democracy, it’s all an autocracy” — the performances themselves have the feeling of a directorial grab for texture, a not-quite-successful attempt to spice things up on Ostermeier’s part. It also doesn’t help that Hoss never seems to register our presence in the way Toni and Paul do. I was grateful that she didn’t: ironically, Moukarzel and Gadema’s reaching across the fourth wall feels weirdly distancing, whereas I felt utterly connected to the world Hoss was building with Eribon.
This may be because Returning to Reims is actually at its strongest when it whispers rather than shouts — when, like Hamlet’s father, it asks us to lend our serious hearing to what it shall unfold. Through the alchemy of Eribon’s writing and Hoss’s remarkable performance, the play quietly justifies itself as a work of theater. After all, how many of us in the audience might have discovered, read, and fully processed Eribon’s memoir on our own? A few at most — not me. But Ostermeier has brought us together to experience its painfully urgent ideas communally. In Elizabethan England, audiences spoke not of seeing a play, but of going to hear one. Theater requires us to listen as a community, to acknowledge ourselves as social beings and to reckon with the humanity of everyone involved — the woman next to you checking her program, the couple behind you who keep whispering, Katy, Paul, Toni, Eribon, Eribon’s father. Returning to Reims suggests that the only way through the dark is to face the ghosts, to face each other, and to take the time to listen.
Uptown at MTC, another artist — far more of a household name than Thomas Ostermeier — is working from a memoir to grapple with the diseases that riddle the body of our contemporary world. At least, that’s what she thinks she’s doing.
Eve Ensler rocketed to fame as both a writer and an activist in the mid-’90s with The Vagina Monologues, which won her an Obie and has thus far been translated into 48 languages and performed in over 140 countries — not to mention on countless American college campuses every February since 1996. I’m among the thousands of women about my age who performed in undergraduate productions of the play. As part of the audition, I recall being asked to act out an orgasm (it was probably a pathetic imitation of When Harry Met Sally, because Lord knows that’s as close as I’d gotten to the real thing). I was a nerdy college freshman and not particularly sure of myself, but even then I remember thinking, “There’s something not right about this play.” I couldn’t yet articulate it, but all through the run of the show and the surrounding V-Day celebrations, it gnawed at me.
Now that feeling is back, thanks to the maudlin, self-obsessed In the Body of the World, Ensler’s new solo adaptation of her memoir of the same name, directed by Diane Paulus. No, it’s more than a gnawing: it’s outright frustration. But I’m not 19 anymore, and I’m ready to articulate it. Here’s the thing: Ensler has had uterine cancer. She’s also done a good deal of humanitarian work, including helping to set up a supportive community for women survivors of violence in the Congo. She has suffered, and she has worked to change the world for the better. The first deserves sympathy, and the second, respect. But we are living in an age in which we too often feel that, because an artist has arguably accomplished Good Works in the world, we must deem their works of art Good. We allow seemingly irreproachable politics to create a cocoon around mediocre, problematic theater, shielding it from criticism as it hibernates in the warm, fuzzy bed of its own self-satisfaction.
And In the Body of the World is nothing if not self-satisfied and problematic. Ensler’s aim is to draw a parallel between the cancer she was diagnosed with in 2010 and the brutalities enacted upon women’s bodies globally, as well as upon the Earth itself: “Cancer threw me into the center of my body’s crisis,” she says, “The Congo threw me into the crisis of the world.” She describes hearing hundreds of horror stories during her time in the Congo that “all began to bleed together. The destruction of vaginas. The pillaging of minerals. The raping of the Earth.” While the connection Ensler is attempting to draw between the disease of a single body and the ills of the world isn’t in itself troubling, the fact that all her stories also seem to bleed together — into a kind of showy solipsism masquerading as impassioned vulnerability — is.
The play is a public therapy session by and for Ensler herself. She’s more interested in self-diagnosing (did her cancer come from tofu? From cheating or being cheated on? From bad reviews? From worrying “every day for 56 years that I wasn’t good enough?”), self-celebrating (just wait till the lights come on and you’re ordered to stand up and dance with her), and self-affirming (her therapist tells her that the chemo she’s going to receive is “for all the past crimes, for your father, for the rapists … [for] the badness that was projected onto you but was never yours”) than she is in looking the actual cruelty of her disease, its randomness, straight in the eye. She spins disconcerting narratives around the cancer — she’s never given birth, so “was the tumor a way of making something? Was I making a trauma baby?” — striving to ascribe to it and to her fight against it a moral meaning. She never reckons with the possibility that it might be meaningless.
Worse still, when she does step outside her own body to encounter the body of the world, there’s almost a feeling of torture porn in her descriptions of the atrocities she’s witnessed or had recounted to her. Near the end of the play, Ensler stands in a single spotlight, her face raised in almost beatific rapture, as she tells the story of what happened to a woman named Angelique in the Congo. The details are unbearably gruesome, and there’s something utterly disturbing not just in the story itself but in both Ensler’s delivery and Paulus’s staging. Why does it feel like Ensler is being sainted? Whose suffering are we being asked to feel for here — the victim’s or the actor’s? True empathy is one thing, and I have no doubt that Ensler possesses it, but the performance of empathy is something else, and it leaves an icky taste in the mouth, like artificial sweetener.
It might seem that a memoir is inherently egoistic territory, and perhaps in some ways it is. But there are forms of self-analysis, of self-questioning, that ultimately look outward, that teach a reader — or an audience member — about something more than the psychology of the memoirist. Ostermeier’s interpretation of Eribon is in fact doing its work in the body of the world. In the end, Ensler’s play is really all about Eve.
Returning to Reims is at St. Ann’s Warehouse through February 25.
In the Body of the World is at City Center Stage I.