“Back and Forth”: State Theatre, Constance

Dana Rufolo in Constance 

In the Spring 2019 issue of Plays International & Europe, the new artistic director of the Staatstheater Konstanz (Constance), Karen Becker, claimed in an interview that her artistic leadership would be characterized by a turn towards community theatre. One of the first productions to open up after the theatre’s closure due to the pandemic, the autumn production of Hin und Her, has proven her true to her word.

 

Back and Forth. Photo credit: Patrick Pfeiffer.

 

Hin und Her (Back and Forth) by the twentieth-century Austrian playwright Ödon von Horváth used a cast that included members of the public who had applied to participate in the formation of a Stadtensemble. This means that the cast was composed of amateurs, many of whom nonetheless have had years of experience performing in regional theatre groups. A professional movement director (Bewegunsregie), Tanja Jäckel, did her job in giving the actors training on how to move elegantly – especially during a midnight otherworldly scene that is based on music, masks, and dance.

The director Anne-Stine Peters is a professional who has often worked with non-professionals and as such is like the director Yael Ronen of the Gorki Theater in Berlin. However, Ronen, who is much better known, has worked with immigrants and forced exiles, whereas the Stadtensemble is clearly apolitical; Peters directed Germans who are long-term Constance residents. The community theatre feel to the production was immediately apparent when a narrator character (not represented in the original play) opened the play by telling us in a stilted, slow, and overly-articulated speech that the drama we were about to see dealt with border lines or Grenze. The actress appeared to be suffering from aphasia, and sure enough the program notes informed us that she was recovering from a stroke. Additionally, audiences cheered and applauded for friends and family members at all the performances, not just the premiere. It was an ideal reintroduction to the experience of live theatre after months of lockdown.

Of course, to access the zest and timing of this ridiculous yet coherent farce, the timing and self-aplomb of professional comedians would have been a greater pleasure to watch and certainly would have afforded quite a few bellyfuls of laughter that were denied us in this production. But given that the plot veered away from the original play virtually as of its beginning indicates that some other objective than faithful rendering of timeless humour was at stake here.

In English, a border is simply that. Grenze are borders, and two of the main characters are Grenzeorgane or border control officers. The inside joke of the production was the implication that this was Constance’s border with Kreutzlingen, the neighbouring Swiss town – both merge with one another via side streets frequented by day shoppers and bicyclists.

Additonally, in German, a Grenze is also a limit, as in “the limits of the self” or “limitation, other- or self-imposed”. The fulcrum of this particular production of Hin und Her, consequently, has to do with the two-way meaning of Grenze: border (national or natural, like rivers or the sea) and limit. Justification for infusing the farce with psychological elements foreign to its comedic thrust is found in the announcement that the play is “nach” Horváth. “Nach” (“based on”) is a word that for me smacks of the potential for directors to exploit scripts as found objects, whereas defenders of Regietheater see directorial inventiveness as a sign of theatrical vitality.

Because it is (merely) “based on” Horváth’s Hin und Her, a swathe of the plot has been removed. Despite early reflections on the advantages and disadvantages of limitations – anarchy would be the result if there weren’t limitations, it is reminded – at first the play is faithfully rendered. A former apothecary owner who has gone into bankruptcy, Ferdinand Havlicek, is being booted out of the country he worked and paid taxes in for over thirty years; however in the country he has been born in, located on the other side of a bridge over a river that he needs to traverse, citizenship by birth is not recognized. Since neither country will take in Havlicek and since both border control officers have their orders and will not compromise, Havlicek is obliged to take up residency on the no man’s land strip of bridge. A subplot in Hin und Her involves the love tryst and marriage plans of the daughter of Thomas Szamek, one border control officer; she is in love with Konstantin, Szamek’s opposite number, and that love is reciprocated.

 

The ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ scene in Back and Forth. Photo credit: Ilja Mess.

 

After a parallel initial exposition plus the Stadtensemble’s moralizing on the meaning of Grenze (more on that subject later), the Constance Hin und Her takes off on its own direction. In the 1934 play, a subplot develops in which a drug (cocaine) smuggler is expected to pass over the border into a neighbouring country via the same no man’s land bridge which figures large in both the play and in this production, where it is the only set piece on stage. If the smuggler and his assistants are caught, there will be a large reward.

Konstantin and Havlicek (Thomas Bissinger) succeed in trapping the drug dealers, and they share the prize; Eva’s father Szamek is thus convinced of Konstantin’s worthiness and the marriage is allowed to go forward with parental approval. By decree from the Foreign Minister, Havlicek is welcomed into the country of his birth, and he can already anticipate having a job and also a partner there, for a widow innkeeper who met Havlicek when travelling to the bridge has exchanged love vows with him. It is a happy ending all round.

The Constance ensemble diverted from the original play by substituting a scene of midnight reverie which they over-confidently conceive as a Shakespearean touch: when the smuggler’s subplot ought to begin there is instead a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” episode. The characters are caught in a night trance involving dance movements, the seizingly eerie electronic instrumental music of Jonas Meyer; the amplified “stoned” song “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles; and two figures in striking masks, one of an animal and the other of a sun face complete with tiny lights forming a circle around the white mask of a visage that is reminiscent of a feminized version of the Greek mask of Agamemnon.

It is as if the Stadtensemble, reading the part about the drug smugglers, got it into their heads to have the characters ingest these drugs. For only the drug effect is left – the smugglers and the second subplot of romance have totally vanished: in this production, furthermore, Eva and Havlicek make eyes at each other, and we are allowed to assume that theirs will be the next marriage on the calendar. This scene was theatrically appealing, as it dramatized an escape from limits of all sorts. Since Hin und Her is not well-known [Horváth is best known for Jugend ohne Gott (Youth Without God)) the audience was unaware that this scene of liberation was not part of the play, and they were caught up in its mood of abandon.

Of course, there is a practical reason for this change of plot. In this production, Szamek and Konstantin are played by the same actor, Boris Griener, born in 1965 and far more a likely father to Eva than her fiancé. Community theatre has the disadvantage here of being restricted to available local amateurs. And yet according to Peters the decision to insert a plot development and ending of her own invention has little to do with practical limitations but was motivated by the desire to explore the metaphor and psychological meaning of boundaries. Beginning with the opening interpolated character’s speech, we are sermonized on the importance of stretching one’s own limits, be they psychological or physical. One character in the night dream sequence talks about her problem with depression, for instance.

Though the audience is never sure if it is the character or the actor confessing, Peters told me that the actor was telling her own story. And, as I mention above, actors stated that they feel comforted by boundaries that are indispensable to contain them and prevent chaos – dialogue that certainly has no counterpart in the original play.
The production took place in the black box Spiegelhalle stage of the Constance theatre, by the edge of the harbour. Lighting was simple; a comic touch is the often used disinfectant dispensers placed at both ends of the bridge (designer Christian Hofmann); and the costumes (also by Christian Hofmann) communicated the community feeling of the show with every costume boasting some ornamental part – necklines, pockets, or panels – made from identical material featuring a pattern of circles.