European sampler: ‘Zeitgeist: New Playwrights From Austria, Germany and Switzerland’

(Alexi Pelekanos/Schauspielhaus Theater, Vienna) - Veronika Glatzner, from left, Thiemo Strutzenberger, Franziska Hackl, Vincent Glander and Barbara Horvath in the 2011 production of “Chirping Hill” at Vienna’s Schauspielhaus Theater. The award-winning play will be aired as part of “Zeitgeist: New Playwrights From Austria, Germany and Switzerland” of acclaimed German-language scripts in English translations.

To get a sounding on the mood of Europe, you could turn to the daily news coverage of the region’s economic woes. But there are other options for pulse-taking: In a mini-festival that kicks off Monday, audiences in the District and New York City will have a chance to hear what a chorus of talking crickets has to say.

The crickets are characters in “Chirping Hill” (original title: “Grillenparz”), an award-winning play by fast-rising Austrian dramatist Thomas Arzt. A mysterious tale of corporate culture confronting nature, violence and globalization, “Chirping Hill” will be performed as part of “Zeitgeist: New Playwrights From Austria, Germany and Switzerland.” Launched last year by local director Gillian Drake, and co-sponsored by a group of theaters and European diplomatic and cultural entities, the project mounts staged readings of acclaimed German-language scripts in English translations. It has found champions, and a labor force, in East Coast theater artists intrigued by Europe’s sometimes wildly imaginative stage traditions.

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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.

A theater veteran who spent time in Frankfurt and Vienna during college (her credits include founding On Trial Associates, a Chevy Chase company that trains lawyers and business people in theater techniques), Drake became convinced that Americans needed more exposure to current European drama. U.S. theaters used to produce more contemporary continental scripts in translation, she said, but in the 1990s, “there was this pulling away,” as U.S. companies focused more on home-grown voices.

(Of course, U.S. theaters do produce some current European plays in translation. Witness, for instance, Seiden’s 2011 production of “The Golden Dragon,” by Germany’s Roland Schimmelpfennig, at Studio; Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s recent staging of “Oxygen” by Russia’s Ivan Vyrypaev; or the widely produced scripts of France’s Yasmina Reza.)

Drake researched new German-language plays and cold-called translators. She found scripts that appealed to the local branch of the international Goethe-Institut, which focuses on German culture. The Embassy of Switzerland and the D.C. arm of the Austrian Cultural Forum also signed on to the effort, which resulted in staged readings of Ewald Palmetshofer’s existential “Hamlet Is Dead. No Gravity,” among other plays, in 2011.

David Dower, then the associate artistic director of Arena Stage, directed “Hamlet Is Dead. No Gravity” and remembers thinking that he had encountered a new perspective on theater. He recalls tackling a rehearsal of the play in his usual manner, “moving the actors beat by beat through the sense of the story.” But Palmetshofer, who had made the trans-Atlantic trek, was present and Dower remembers noticing a funny look on the playwright’s face. Asked for feedback, Palmetshofer responded, “I just haven’t ever seen anybody do all of my words in order!” Dower recalled.

Whereas U.S. directors tend to take a more reverent approach to a text, said Dower (who is now director of artistic programs at Arts Emerson, in Boston), their European counterparts are more likely to “make whatever work they want, using the gift of the text in whatever way they want.”

Dower was also struck by the edginess of “Hamlet Is Dead,” which moves its abstraction-spouting characters through metaphysical vistas and features striking patterns of verbal repetition.

“A lot of the time, work that is accepted as fairly ordinary in the German-language realm can seem very out there and experimental in the American or Anglo-American context,” said Neil Blackadder, a professor of theater at Knox College who has translated contemporary German-language plays (including “Chirping Hill” and “Hamlet Is Dead”) into English. “German-speaking audiences are much more used to seeing plays which don’t have clear narratives.”

Such differences in sensibility might discourage U.S. companies from tackling more translated contemporary German-language theater. (Dower and others say that one reason Reza’s plays have made such inroads here, for instance, is that her plays are in sync with the naturalistic current of much U.S. drama.)

Studio’s Seiden, who has worked with local actress Karin Rosnizeck on rendering “Cold Country” into English, points to the trickiness of translation itself as another potential barrier. A translator, he observes, constantly has to ponder quandaries such as, “‘Do you need a word that starts with an ‘S’ or a ‘K’ here because in the original there was some alliteration?’ ”

“It’s subtle stuff,” he said.

There are plans to make Zeitgeist a two-way street next year, with presentations of recent U.S. scripts in German-speaking Europe. “Cold Country” playwright Finger said the move comes at the right time. Europe’s financial distress, he speculated, will make its thespians all the more interested in other theatrical traditions and production models.

“We don’t have money any more. Now the question is, do we have a hospital or a theater?” he said in an interview via Skype. “It’s a frightening moment for us, and at such a time to have an exchange is very important.”

Wren is a freelance writer.

Crazy Blood
(Verruecktes Blut)

directed by Arena Stage Senior Directing Fellow Ameneh Bordi. Presented by the Goethe-Institut Washington and Arena Stage. Monday at the Goethe-Institut, 812 Seventh St. NW. 202-289-1200, Ext. 167, or info@washington.goethe.org.

Cold Country (Kaltes Land)

directed by Serge Seiden. Presented by the Embassy of Switzerland and the Studio Theatre. June 18 at the Goethe-Institut, 812 Seventh St. NW. 202-289-1200, Ext. 168, or info@washington.goethe.org.

Chirping Hill (Grillenparz)

directed by Jenny Lord, resident assistant director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Presented by the Austrian Cultural Forum Washington and the Shakespeare Theatre Company. June 25 at the Embassy of Austria, 3524 International Ct. NW. 202-895-6776 or www.acfdc.org/events-registration.

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