nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 6, 2007
Will we see a more distinctive, visceral play this fall? Kinderspiel, the latest work to emanate from the extraordinary and increasingly well-regarded Stolen Chair Theatre Company, defies easy categorization and simple analysis. It is dazzlingly entertaining, extremely well-crafted, and at once both funny and a little off-putting. Its sharp and challenging themes linger well after the play itself has ended, sparking lively conversation and perhaps even a bit of soul-searching as you explore its ideas.
It takes place in an underground (in both senses of that word) cabaret space, in Berlin in 1922-1923, at the height of the horrendous inflation that followed the Treaty of Versailles. (Director Jon Stancato supplies an excellent note in the program that provides very useful historical background to the piece; be sure to read it.) Into this basement, a fading cabaret star of, alas, only the second rank—a dissolute if not desperate dancer named Louisa Reissner—wanders one fateful night. It's an abandoned space when Louisa happens upon it, cluttered with the detritus of its former occupation. At the end of her rope, mentally, spiritually, and economically, Louisa takes refuge here in childish games. She starts to play, and the playing is infectious; she stays.
Soon she's joined by a disillusioned young man, Max Haussmann, who is gay, rich, Jewish, and above all bored. He discovers Louisa at play by happenstance, but quickly sees the "point" of the evidently "pointless" things she is doing, and joins in.
And then Heinrich Frank, our narrator, finds them, and he makes them inadvertently famous, at least for a time. Heinrich understands that Louisa and Max's un-self-conscious games are precisely what the weary postwar Berliners need for diversion. He christens the space "Kinderspiel" and starts selling tickets. When cutting-edge arts journalist Sonja Graff learns of Kinderspiel, she boosts it among the intelligentsia and also, for a time, becomes part of the show. Eventually a fourth person enters the company—widow Anna Walter, the club's cleaning lady; she alters the balance significantly and, with her links to the realities of the "new Germany" that's just around the corner, has much to do with its dissolution.
The remarkable thing about Kinderspiel, which is written by Kiran Rikhye, directed by Stancato, and designed by David Bengali and May Elbaz, is how full of contradictions it is. Louisa and Max—and eventually Sonja and Anna—spend most of their time playing, and most of that playing also for an audience. What the actors do is obviously meticulously worked out and rehearsed, but it never feels anything but utterly spontaneous; yet we're aware that the players are aware of an audience and wonder constantly how much what they do is purposeful (for, say, political or subversive intent) and how much is randomly imaginative.
Similarly, Rikhye has invented for them a strange childish dialect that separates them from the "grown-ups": this almost-babytalk lingo feels simultaneously joyously organic and dangerously deliberate.
The characters of Heinrich and Anna are especially complicated: they're the non-artists in the group, but they're the only ones who actually create (or destroy) anything here; they're also the ones least likely to actually speak the truth, and their motives are always questionable. Can Heinrich be the Communist he says he is when he is such a skillful practitioner of capitalism, for example?
Kinderspiel, complex and deep, marks Rikhye yet again as one of the premier young dramatists in America right now. Stancato's production, a miracle of economy and inventiveness in the perfectly appropriate Under St. Marks space, is spectacularly good; I was constantly impressed by the use and reuse of the relatively small number of props on stage to represent all the varied ingredients of Louisa, Max, and the others' games. All five actors do fine work here: Sam Dingman as the deceptively aloof narrator Heinrich, Alexia Vernon as the seemingly lost soul Louisa, Cameron J. Oro as the questing Max, Liza Wade White as the desperately trendy Sonja, and Layna Fisher as the attention-starved Anna.
So, while I'm all for there being many new American plays as challenging and original as this one, I doubt that we'll be that lucky. Which is why Kinderspiel should be required viewing for the theatrically adventurous and those in search of the most provocative and thought-provoking work that indie theater has to offer.