BERLIN — “Loose, baggy monsters” is how Henry James famously described the long and unruly novels of the 19th century. In Berlin this season, several new productions take on sprawling literary works, trimming them to manageable lengths while still capturing the thrill of their vast, imaginary universes.
Stage adaptations of novels are extremely common in German theaters, where the dividing line between literary genres can be porous and where fidelity to the text is hardly a cardinal virtue.
The most unusual thing about Oliver Frljic’s new production of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” at the Maxim Gorki Theater isn’t that its heroine, perhaps the most famous of literary suicides, doesn’t hurl herself in front of an oncoming train at the end: It’s that along with her glittering society, she shares the stage with the lowly protagonists of another novel by a 19th-century Russian writer, Dostoyevsky’s “Poor Folk.”
At first, the idea seems merely to depict Russian society from opposite ends. As the evening progresses, however, the two narratives increasingly overlap. The juxtaposition invites us to re-evaluate the dilemmas of the Russian nobles, contrasting them with more existential struggles.
Igor Pauska, the production’s set designer, has laid down rusty tracks onstage that facilitate transitions between social milieus with some help from push trolleys that roll downstage conveying actors and props. Adding another, unexpected and visually dazzling dimension to all these horizontal proceedings is a grand piano — complete with player — which every so often descends from the rafters.
Frljic, a Croatian director, works wonders with the Gorki’s acting ensemble, whose ethnic diversity is a point of pride for the theater and a rarity on stages in Germany. Lea Draeger makes an initially chilly, reserved impression in the title role, working up quietly to reveal her character’s inner anguish and turmoil. The physically nimble Jonas Dassler, one of the Gorki’s younger members, is splendidly agitated as Konstantin Levin, often considered “Anna Karenina’s” other protagonist. When we first see him, toward the start of the production, he is struggling to make his way downstage with large blocks of ice fastened to his shoes.
In another memorably physical scene, twirling aristocrats at a ball trample loaves of bread under their feet. After the dance, Dostoyevsky’s starving peasants swoop down on the filthy scraps, greedily filling their mouths. Among them are Makar and Varvara, the tragic couple at the center of “Poor Folk,” and from this moment, the worlds of the two novels begin to blur.
The scene is hard to watch, but has nothing on the way Frljic stages the Steeplechase chapter, with Dostoyevsky’s peasants grotesquely forced onto the racetrack to stand in for the horses. What ensues is a lengthy scene in which the rich make sport of the poor’s suffering. At its hellish climax, when Vronsky, Anna’s lover (played as callous by Taner Sahinturk), takes a tumble, the peasant standing in for his mare is strung up and hanged.
After the intermission, the “Poor Folk” get their revenge. At the end of the evening, they turn Bolshevik, storm Tolstoy’s novel and take its protagonists hostage. “The Soviet soil is still wet with tears for Anna Karenina’s fate. This means the proletariat understands bourgeois problems better than they do their own,” one of the new revolutionaries cries out accusingly. Cue the firing squad!
The blood baths that ensue invite us to reflect not only on the moral dimension of revolutionary violence but also on competing loyalties drawn along the lines of class and gender. Does Anna have more in common with Varvara or with the preening, privileged creatures of Moscow and St. Petersburg’s salons? Frljic’s heavy-handed finale, filled with loud gunshots and oversize portraits of Lenin and Putin, implies that attempts to throw off oppression always end in more and that, ultimately, the only loyalty a person can have is to him or herself.
Like “Anna Karenina,” “Don Quixote” has been widely adapted. It has spawned operas, symphonic works, ballets and musicals. Filmmakers including Orson Welles and Terry Gilliam have struggled to bring the classic to the screen.
Although it is often considered the first modern novel, Cervantes’s masterpiece, the first volume of which appeared in 1605, incorporates many earlier literary traditions, including the chivalric romances it famously skewers. The book’s diverse style and immense scope are among the elements that have delighted, fascinated and infuriated critics and artists alike over the past four centuries.
Jan Bosse’s production of “Quixote,” first seen this past summer at the Bregenz Festival, in Austria, and now in repertoire at the Deutsches Theater here, makes a radical yet impressively efficient reduction of the lengthy tome. Jakob Nolte, a young German playwright, turns the sprawling picaresque into a two-man show for the title knight and his loyal squire, Sancho Panza.
The staging is vaguely contemporary, and Bosse sets his actors loose on a dark and mostly empty stage, on which Sancho Panza hauls around a large wooden container that seems to be both Quixote’s trailer and traveling theater. The props of Quixote’s famous exploits — windmills, castles, sheep — are left entirely to the imagination, as are the rest of the characters.
Inevitably, the entire production comes down to the performances. Ulrich Matthis, a longtime ensemble member (best known internationally for having played Goebbels in the film “Downfall”), is a rugged and restless Quixote, both cruel and unexpectedly tender toward his companion. Wolfram Koch makes for an unusually assertive, though still gruff and uncouth, Sancho Panza.
The synergy between Matthis and Koch is possibly the best I’ve witnessed between actors on a German stage. Whether in moments of incredulity (Sancho warning Quixote against charging the windmills) or argument (a witty late-evening debate about who the book’s real protagonist is), their relationship is thoroughly codependent. It’s easy to wonder, at times, whether these characters are meant to be Cervantes’s iconic figures or just two homeless crazies playing make believe. This is, of course, just another way of construing the novel’s themes of imagination and madness. Either way, Mattis and Koch cut these outsize roles down to size.
Literature, like life itself, can be quite messy. When James complained of loose, baggy monsters, he was expressing his conviction that novels require a consistent point of view. But in the right artistic hands, even the unruliest and most cumbersome of narratives can be converted into gripping, involving theater.
Anna Karenina or Poor Folk. Directed by Oliver Frljic. Maxim Gorki Theater. Through Dec. 26.
Don Quixote. Directed by Jan Bosse. Deutsches Theater. Through Dec. 26.
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