Ritter, Dene, Voss
nytheatre.com review by Chris Harcum
September 23, 2010
Toronto's One Little Goat Theatre Company brings an Austrian writer's family feud to kick off La MaMa's 49th season. Thomas Bernhard's three-hander was named after the play's original actors—Ilse Ritter, Kirsten Dene, and Gert Voss—whom the lauded novelist (Georg Buchner Prize) and playwright admired. Written in the mid-1980s, it was intended that this piece would be revisited by the same cast every other year for several decades. (This collaboration continued for the next 12 years.) Since Bernhard did not want publication or performances of his work to be done inside Austria's borders after his death in 1989, it is fitting that this Canadian company premieres this play in one of NYC's hotbeds of international theatre.
Beethoven piano concertos, an oriental rug, a dining table covered in a white tablecloth, a stack of faded newspapers, and abstract paintings transport the audience on arrival not only to 20th century Vienna but also something akin to Theatre of the Absurd time immemorial. The story takes place before, during, and after lunch one day when two sisters, who are actresses at their leisure and are named simply "older sister" and "younger sister," deal with the return of their philosopher brother, Ludwig, from the Salzburg sanatorium. Arguments, accusations, and character assassinations are lobbed over musings of the nature of theatre and the dynamics of dysfunctional families while giving nods to Bernhard's personal life (he was hospitalized for tuberculosis, trained as an actor, and was a friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein's nephew).
Adding to the controlled cacophony, are performances by skilled actors—Shannon Perreault, Maev Beaty, and Jordan Pettle—using a text that was written with no punctuation on the page. Adam Seelig, the show's director and the company's artistic director, finds the play's music, which often comes off as counterpoint exercises.
The dialogue turns and churns as the siblings face off with one another. The father died of tongue cancer and the younger sister finds the older sister to be like their mother. There is the feeling that volumes of the family's history left unspoken hang in the air like the paintings with faces cut out mounted on the walls. It is stated late in the first half of the show, "there is nothing more repellent than dying in one's parent's house." The push and pull of caring and revulsion amongst the trio rearranges the relationships and the living space.
While the performances are front and center in this production, Jackie Chau's thoughtful scenic and costume designs work nicely with Rosie Cruz's nuanced lighting design and the uncredited but effective sound design to create an atmosphere that stands on its own.
Some may find this look into the lives of the moneyed class a bit out of touch with the current state of the economy. On the other hand, they might laugh at the problems generated by those with more time on their hands than is useful. Or, it simply could be a coincidence that this show is here at a time when some Canadians politely laugh at but also are afraid of the crumbling of America's financial system.
While Ludwig rails against nurturing developing talent by saying, "Help a young artist and you destroy and annihilate him," I am glad La MaMa has brought this young company to New York. My hope is that Seelig creates something else that follows in the footsteps of Thomas Bernhard by developing a work personally suited to Perreault, Beaty, and Pettle's particular talents.