The Zeitgeist offerings “are the hottest plays in Europe right now,” said Alan Paul, associate director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, which is co-presenting “Chirping Hill” on June 25. Paul helped select the festival scripts this year. He said reading works such as Arzt’s cricket-chorus riff made him marvel at “how much more experimental [German-speaking] European playwrights are allowed to be,” perhaps because government funding in Austria, Germany and Switzerland makes theaters less box-office dependent than their U.S. counterparts.
International theater “is an underdeveloped resource” in the United States, said Serge Seiden, associate producing artistic director at the Studio Theatre, which is co-sponsoring the Zeitgeist reading of “Cold Country” (“Kaltes Land”), by the esteemed Swiss playwright Reto Finger. A dark portrait of an insular Alpine community, “Cold Country” features brooding characters recounting snippets of unsettling mountain legends. “It kind of reminds you of ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ ” Seiden said.
Not that the Zeitgeist selections eschew realism and social problems. The festival begins Monday with Nurkan Erpulat and Jens Hillje’s hit play “Crazy Blood” (“Verruecktes Blut”), a stereotype-skewering tale about a teacher who takes her unruly students hostage and forces them, at gunpoint, to study the classic German playwright Friedrich Schiller. With characters who are largely young Germans of Turkish heritage, “Crazy Blood” ponders the issues of immigration, assimilation and tolerance.
Erpulat, who was born in Turkey and who later moved to Berlin, said German theater has, in the past few years, begun to grapple with the topic of immigration. In his view, it’s about time. “As theater people, we claim to build reality on the stage,” he said by phone from California, going on to paraphrase “Hamlet.” “Shakespeare says we are the mirror of society!”
Erpulat and the other Zeitgeist playwrights will attend the D.C. readings, participate in talkbacks and travel north, where New York Theatre Workshop, Playwrights Horizons and Soho Rep will mount readings of the scripts with different directors. The participation of so many scribblers, and of the Big Apple troupes, represents a dialing up of the Zeitgeist scope, Drake said. Last year, the events were all in the District and just one writer flew over.