Kasimir and Karoline
nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
April 21, 2005
Kasimir & Karoline, written in 1931 by Odon von Horvath, has been adapted by director Pavol Liska and brought to Classic Stage Company in a rare modern translation. Translation is, in many ways, the essence of this production. Its strengths and its weaknesses are intrinsically tied to translation, not simply of the language, but also of the setting, from a 1930s Munich Oktoberfest to a 2000ish New Jersey Rocktoberfest.
Kasimir & Karoline is essentially the story of two lovers, and the play begins in the midst of a mounting tension between them. Kasimir has just lost his job and so he begins to complain of life’s essential unfairness, predictably bringing down the mood of Karoline and all those assembled for the Rocktoberfest party. Interrupting dance breaks with nihilistic soliloquy, Kasimir can’t even appreciate Karoline’s and the crowd’s awe at a towering zeppelin as it makes its astonishing appearances. For Kasimir, the zeppelin’s greatness only reminds him of his own insignificance.
Soon Kasimir becomes belligerent to Karoline, prophesizing that now that he is unemployed, she will soon leave him. Kasimir’s brutality towards himself is relentless—his shame at losing his job fuels such hysteria that now it is only a matter of time until Karoline will leave him. Whether Kasimir’s joblessness actually aggravates Karoline is unclear (she swears it doesn’t), but what is clear is that Kasimir’s fear of letting Karoline down becomes a splinter between them, directly alienating her from his grief while slowly turning her into his antagonist. Forced to defend her position, Karoline (already possessing a thick Jersey accent) vehemently protests—and briefly channels a rare performative synthesis between Dolly Parton and J. Lo, dodging her head and wagging finger at Kasimir, insisting “A re-hal womahn st-hands by her mahhn.”
The tension increases, when under Kasimir’s oppressive tirade, Karoline blurts out, “Maybe we just ain't meant for each othah!” It is the unintentional beginning of their slow and painful estrangement. From then on, they begin to be constantly interrupted by intrusive outsiders and persistent bad luck. And so Kasimir and Karoline continually miss each other, in spite of their efforts to reach out and to make amends. Both become entrenched in circumstances that they wouldn’t normally be in: Karoline plays the role of tramp that Kasimir has been casting her in, and Kasimir is dumbly led into criminal conduct. Their hopes to remedy their own situations, and their love affair, become further disrupted when each becomes the objecs of someone else’s desire.
Considering that the play is almost a century old, playwright von Horvath deals with surprising immediacy in issues that have haunted humankind, but especially lovers, with dogged persistence: issues of misunderstandings between the sexes and high aspirations with low returns. Liska is nevertheless quite obviously interested in making the text relevant to modern audiences; hence some of the unusual tactics employed in this adaptation. Unfortunately, some of these are much more successful than others.
The translation is peppered with a strange juxtaposition of text from the original German and modern colloquialisms. It is not long into the play that the terms “fraulein” and “dude” are used with equal alacrity. This is probably the funniest of the many attention-drawing elements employed in this production.
The actors are made to spin themselves around to get from one place to another—this unexplained, circuitous movement is oft, but not always, used as a means of getting to and fro, and most of the actors look stilted and uncomfortable doing it. Also strange are the tendencies of the characters to touch or indicate their genitals whenever they say that they’ve been “thinking.” It becomes distracting and doesn’t really make a point regarding the essential problems of sex within the play, which are already very clear.
Some of the best comic material is regarding the playwright’s references, through the mouths of his characters, to the “all-purpose magical tent.” For indeed, the main set piece, which serves as the location for all of the events that the audience cannot see (but which are alluded to) is a prominently featured, but enclosed, tent. At times it is an ice cream stand, from which characters emerge with actual cones, while at other times it is a parking lot—the scene of a disastrous crime caper late in the play. Jian Jung’s set is sparse and elegant, extremely useful and delicately minimal. It is a great help in transporting the audience to a dreamy world, which bears some resemblance to our own. Also notable is the sound, an appropriately creepy, haunting set of arrangements borrowed mostly from Disney animated pictures.
The tools which imbue this staging with its endearing unusual-ness are also the ones that detract from its essential strength. Nevertheless, Liska's Kasimir and Karoline—so ambitious in its existence in a simultaneous Jersey/Germany landscape—is a dedicated production, blessed with a strong cast and with risk-taking, creative directing.