BERLIN — People in Berlin know the drill by now: Wear masks, wash hands, give details for contact tracing and keep a distance from other audience members.
As the city’s theaters reopen for the new season, many are playing catch-up, tweaking schedules to accommodate postponed premieres while working within strict health and safety guidelines. It’s what cultural life looks like in the midst of a pandemic.
Rather than rope off seats to promote social distancing, some of Berlin’s leading playhouses prepared themselves for this “corona season” by uprooting many chairs, and images of theaters missing entire rows began circulating on social media over the summer.
Still, I felt a shock this month on entering the auditorium of the Volksbühne, one of Berlin’s most beautiful theaters, for Alexander Eisenach’s “The Emperor of California” (“Der Kaiser von Kalifornien”). With its capacity down to roughly 150 from 800, the hall looked gutted. More than merely empty, it seemed naked. On the other hand, I’ve never had so much legroom in my theatergoing life.
“The Emperor of California” is based on a movie with the dubious distinction of being the first western made in Nazi Germany. That 1936 Luis Trenker biopic of Johann August Sutter, a Swiss-born pioneer who set off the 1849 California gold rush, provided rich material for Eisenach, a young director whose postmodern sensibility brings together an outlandish mixed-media aesthetic with critiques of capitalism.
There is much to admire in the energetic and rigorous mise-en-scène, which features live music and live video on a frequently rotating stage, although at two and a half hours — without intermission, owing to new coronavirus rules — it is frequently a grueling expedition.
Daniel Wollenzin’s stark industrial set is dominated by a constantly turning mill wheel, often dramatically lit from behind, while Sven Michelson and Niklas Kraft’s pulsing music sets the tone.
The first hour or so traces the founding of Sutter’s Fort, a trading colony started in the California Central Valley in 1839, which the pioneer (played wonderfully by Johanna Bantzer) originally called New Helvetia. This part is fluid, fast-moving and engaging, balancing expository dramatic scenes with elaborate video captured in black and white by masked cameramen.
But the long second half, which traces the protagonist’s downfall, is unnecessarily drawn out. Eisenach retains the anti-American message of the Nazi-era film: that the gold rush corrodes society and undoes all of Sutter’s hard work. But the play seems too long by an hour at least, and its anticapitalist message is blunted by the speechifying that comes to replace acting as the evening wears on.
Rather than dramatize Sutter’s demise, Eisenach lectures us on the shift from agrarian society to financial markets based on credit. The ever-turning mill wheel may represent the unstoppable progress of history, or invisible market forces.
“The Emperor of California” was planned long before anyone had heard of Covid-19. But it was one of a number of world premieres planned for Berlin at the start of the season whose characters crave salvation in ways that seem current.
The title of Hakan Savas Mican’s “Berlin Oranienplatz,” at the Maxim Gorki Theater, alludes to Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel, “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” about an ex-convict in search of redemption on the mean streets of Weimar-era Berlin.
Mican, a Turkish-German director, inverts Döblin’s setup in his very loose present-day adaptation. His protagonist, Can (Taner Sahinturk), is savoring his last hours of freedom before starting a lengthy jail sentence for dealing in knockoff designer clothes. On a beautiful summer day, Can drives around the city in his vintage Mercedes. He checks in on friends, visits an old flame and goes to a travel agency in a desperate attempt to flee to Istanbul.
Mican, who wrote and directed, shrewdly mixes prerecorded video with live theater. The projected montages of city life pulsate to the sound of an onstage jazz quartet, and the effect is reminiscent of a movie by Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese.
Despite the frequent wail of a trumpet, “Berlin Oranienplatz” is a muted affair, with a breezy, meandering tone that makes it engaging, but rarely gripping. A scene in which Can meets his mother going through discarded vegetables at an outdoor market achieves an emotional immediacy that the show is largely unable to deliver.
The show’s premiere was originally set for late March, mere weeks after Germany, and much of the world, went into lockdown, and hindsight seems to have sharpened the play’s message. As we watch Can savor his liberty, we are also painfully aware of just how fragile the freedoms we take for granted are. The play’s conclusion is open-ended: If Mican doesn’t necessarily withhold salvation from Can, he makes us understand that finding it will be tough.
In their different ways, both these offerings appeal to our need for stories about human beings striving to overcome adversity. Even at their most slick and stylized, neither feels like a mere aesthetic or intellectual exercise.
By contrast, it is difficult to connect to “Melissa Gets Everything” (“Melissa kriegt alles”), the German writer-director René Pollesch’s new play at the Deutsches Theater. In many ways, it is a typical Pollesch affair: brainy, silly and devoid of plot or characters.
Over an hour and a half, six spirited performers deliver the repartee with aplomb. The banter is funny and unexpected, sometimes banal, and full of repetitions and non sequiturs.
There is always a hermetic quality to Pollesch’s quirky creations: He makes theater about theater itself. Perhaps, in more normal times, I’d be better able to stomach the irreverence and self-referencing. But entering the Deutsches Theater for the first time since March, and finding Pollesch up to his old tricks again, was a disappointment, since little onstage seemed to bear any relation to the world outside. Neither very original nor particularly diverting, “Melissa Gets Everything” feels nervous, manic and irrelevant.
There is plenty of eye candy, though, thanks to Tabea Braun’s eclectic costumes, which include heavy fur coats, floral-print nightgowns and gold high heels. “Wow! You look really great!” the actors compliment one another as their costumes grow ever more fabulous and outlandish. It’s easy to agree, but difficult to care.
Like the Volksbühne, the Deutsches Theater has removed all but a quarter of its seating. But curiously, the atmosphere is claustrophobic. What are we doing trapped inside with six actors engaging in verbal somersaults at a time like this?
Reopening theaters at a fraction of their capacity clearly could not work for commercial playhouses. That this is possible in Berlin is a result of government grants for culture, as well as the political will to ensure safe conditions for artists and audiences alike. As the curtain rises again on Berlin’s stages, the message is clear: Culture is an essential service. In the coming months, let’s hope that theater makers take advantage of this incredible opportunity and responsibility.
Der Kaiser von Kalifornien. Directed by Alexander Eisenach. Berlin Volksbühne through Oct. 22.
Berlin Oranienplatz. Directed by Hakan Savas Mican. Maxim Gorki Theater through Sept. 30.
Melissa kriegt alles. Directed by René Pollesch. Deutsches Theater through Oct. 10.