Masks On in a Near-Empty Hall: Germany’s Theaters Return


MUNICH — After months of darkened stages and hundreds of canceled productions, Germany’s theaters have begun to emerge from their corona-induced slumber, cautiously feeling their way back to live performance.

From abridged presentations and monologues to other solutions that seem closer to happenings than plays, theatermakers are adapting to changed circumstances as restrictions are eased. This has meant performing for smaller audiences and devising productions that require few actors and stagehands, to ensure a safe distance between the performance and spectators.

Of the unusual workarounds (which vary across Germany’s 16 states), none has been as jaw-droppingly bizarre as Susanne Kennedy and Markus Selg’s “Oracle,” an immersive production in one of the smaller performance spaces of the Münchner Kammerspiele.

Instead of being led through it in small groups, as the directors had intended before the pandemic, masked spectators entered one at a time to find a fluorescent, high-tech dreamscape and were guided through by actors lip-syncing to flat, emotionless recorded voices.

“Are you ready to meet the oracle?” the actors mouthed, staring wide-eyed through plastic visors.

At times it felt like a curated acid trip. At others, cosmic relaxation music and calming disembodied voices took the edge off its more surreal aspects.

The weirdness continued in another Kammerspiele production, “Wunde R,” by the young playwright Enis Maci. In Felix Rothenhäusler’s staging, the audience wasn’t in the auditorium but on the stage, sharing it with four actors who sat around a glass table while reciting a collage of texts that included Mother Teresa’s 1979 Nobel Prize acceptance speech and beauty tips found on the internet.

Voice-distorting microphones and melting ice sculptures added to the atmosphere of uncanniness and disintegration. I was grateful that the spectators were allowed to ambulate: Sitting down, I might have either gone mad or bolted.

In comparison with Munich, where indoor performances for an audience of up to 100 were recently authorized, theater has been slower to re-emerge in Berlin. State-funded theaters there can’t return to regular operations until August. The only way around the restriction has been open-air performances, though not many theaters have the space.

The Berliner Ensemble, a storied theater with a beer garden in its courtyard, mounted short, nightly performances there for the second half of June. Attendance was limited to 50, and the free tickets were snatched up online.

I was looking forward to seeing the electrifying Stefanie Reinsperger perform excerpts from Ersan Mondtag’s wild production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal,” but arrived on a drizzly Saturday evening to find that the performance had been rained out. (Here’s an idea: Why not inform ticketholders, all of whom provided contact details for tracing purposes when booking, of the cancellation in advance?)

The skies were thankfully clear for the following day’s “From Pop to Baroque,” a two-man revue culled from two productions inspired by Thomas Mann’s novel “Felix Krull,” starring Peter Moltzen and Marc Oliver Schulze. Their rapid-fire monologues (including a comically muffled one spoken through a surgical mask), comic banter and slapstick shenanigans had the beer-drinking, pretzel-munching audience in hysterics.

But the series of sketches felt slight: There was acting bravura, but it was short on dramatic purpose. When it was over, the audience roared, in vain, for an encore. More than anything, the 45-minute show seemed to tease those in attendance by reminding them of what they were missing.

The most refreshing part of the Berliner Ensemble’s outdoor theater was being able to take it in without a mask. For the time being, face coverings are a mandatory part of theatergoing in Munich.

At the end of June, after three months in darkness, the 800-seat main auditorium of the Residenztheater opened here for an audience of 100, the maximum number of indoor spectators currently allowed. It felt odd sitting in a theater where entire rows of seats had been removed. At the same time, it was nice to be able to spread out, as in first class on an airplane, during a performance of “The Three Musketeers.”

It was easy to see why Antonio Latella’s popular production had been selected to get things going again. On an empty stage, four actors cavort, tap-dance, holler and bellow with gleeful abandon — though the carryings-on have little to do with Alexandre Dumas’s classic novel. The staging is thrilling, good-natured anarchy, simply executed, all at a safe distance from spectators. The playgoers, for their part, mostly abided by the regulations, patiently awaiting for the ushers to escort them to their seats and keeping their faces covered throughout the performance (although two men in front of me spent the two hours unmasked and dangerous).

At the more intimate end of the theatrical spectrum, the theater has also devised a series of solo evenings in a smaller venue. Limited to 26 spectators, these have included monologues drawn from the works of Dostoyevsky and the French writer Édouard Louis.

In “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” Max Rothbart slipped into the role of the Dostoyevsky story’s brooding hero with intensity as well as humor, particularly when the staging was beset by technical difficulties. Another wonderful ensemble actor, Vincent Glander, appeared as the autobiographical protagonist of Louis’s 2014 novel, “The End of Eddy,” narrating the author’s harrowing experiences growing up gay in a working-class town in the north of France.

In normal times, going to the theater is a richly communal experience. Last weekend’s performances of Toshiki Okada’s “The Vacuum Cleaner,” the first production on the Kammerspiele’s main stage, felt lonely when experienced in a theater that could fill only a fraction of its nearly 700 seats.

I think that Okada, a quirky Japanese theatermaker, would have approved. The play is a deadpan and mordantly funny exploration of the phenomenon of the hikikomori, the estimated one million people in Japan who have withdrawn entirely from the outside world, spending their lives locked away in their rooms.

For an audience that had only recently emerged from a strict lockdown, the play’s examination of imposed solitude felt newly relevant. And the production’s relative simplicity — five actors, minimal stagecraft and no set changes — made it easy to present within guidelines that require everyone onstage and behind the scenes to keep a distance.

As I peered around Munich’s sparsely populated auditoriums at my socially distanced fellow audience members, it struck me as absurd that both “The Vacuum Cleaner” and “The Three Musketeers” were sold-out shows — and yet the theaters were nearly empty. But considering that Broadway will remain closed through the end of the year, and there is still no plan to reopen London’s West End, it’s remarkable that German theaters have the artistic drive as well as the means, thanks to generous government subsidies, to insist that the show go on.

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