“A Midsummer Night’s Dream …”, Freie Bühne Wieden

Ludovico Lucchesi Palli in Vienna at
Ein Sommernachtstraum am Wörthersee – oder Wann ist die Familie Lustig aus Graz verschwunden

Following an open dress rehearsal in December 2021, the theatre in Vienna’s fourth district dedicated to world premieres of contemporary Austrian writers has kicked off 2022 with the opening of Gerald Szyszkowitz’s new play.  As the complex title, which translates into English as A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Wörthersee or When Did the Lustig Family Leave Graz? suggests, this play is romantic but perhaps with a bitter taste.

 

Anita Kolbert, Wilhelm Prainsack and Ralph Saml. Photo credit: Robert Ritter.

 

The action begins with Fehsi von Reininghaus, a young filmmaker and friend of the Puntigam Family, entering the stage and narrating the story.  This is an interesting way to start the play. He is very engaging, sympathetic and manages to grab your attention immediately. His narrator role vanishes slightly as the play progresses, which is a shame, as the complex story would benefit from more narrating.

In the first scene, after the brief exposition, we learn that Fehsi is on the one hand a good friend of the wealthy Puntigams, owners of a famous mill in Graz, who divide their time between Graz and the romantic Wörthersee in Corinthia. But he is also having a long-term affair with Lore Puntigam, who is married to the sole heir of the mill estate, Hans-Jörg Puntigam, who as we learn later on in the play, is facing financial difficulties.  At this stage, this seems like romantic comedy, perhaps in the style of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, and even the arrival of the American professor Helma Ehrenstein, with whom Sascha Puntigam, Hans-Jörg’s younger brother, had a liaison for a year while on a fellowship in Washington DC, one really assumes, that this is simply a romantic comedy.

 

Anita Kolbert and Wilhelm Prainsack. Photo credit: Rolf Bock

 

As the evening progresses, we are proven wrong. What on the surface seems like a romantic comedy, particularly towards the end of the first act, turns into a political drama. While Sascha Puntigam is ready to welcome Helma Ehrenstein with open arms and continue where they left off a few years, Helma’s intentions are very different. Although she keeps to herself for, what seem a long time, as it turns out, she has only come to see Sascha to confront him about his family’s National Socialism past and what happened with a Jewish family, Lustig.

Why did they suddenly disappear? Everyone in the family knew that the family made their fortune in 1938 and that their grain was delivered by Jews who suddenly had to leave, and they also knew about the famous candle stick they bought from the Jews in Annenstraße in Graz, but they never talked about it. For Sascha Puntigam particularly, it was a question of almost neglecting the family’s past.  But for Helma, who is Jewish, it is impossible to have a relationship with someone with that family background. 

In the first act, the political context is only touched upon, particularly when Helma meets Osama, a young man from Gaza, who has a saved a policeman from the terrorist who attacked Vienna in November 2020. She can identify with his stories of not being accepted for what he is in Austria. The character of Osama is based on the real-life Osama Abu El Hosna, who really did save a policeman that November day in 2020 during the terrorist attack in Vienna.

 

Claudio Györgifalvay and Michaela Ehrenstein. Photo credit: Rolf Bock.

 

Furthermore, in the first act, we see as Helma and Fehsi, who might have an affair with Lore and might be close to Hans-Jörg, but acts as an outsider, which is depicted in the form of him trying to turn the life of the Puntigam family into a TV series, Talk About The Lustig Family. This is where the real intentions of her visit are revealed.

In the second act, the play is no longer a romantic comedy, but a full-on political drama. Sascha wants to know what happened in Graz and this ends into a fight with his brother, who has his own ways of dealing with the family’s past. He drinks and turns to violence rather than just facing the facts and trying to change. Helma hands Sascha a book, with evidence that his family indeed had something to do with the disappearance of the Lustig family.

The cast consists of artistic director Michaela Ehrenstein as Helma Ehrenstein, who delivers a strong performance, with a good Hebrew accent and harmonizes well with Robert Ritter as Sascha Puntigam, who brings a sense of greenness to the role which works very well. Anita Kolbert is a credible Lore Puntigam, self-confident, arrogant, but also fragile at the same time. Wilhelm Prainsack brings a lot of humor, a breeze of youth and is very charismatic as Fehsi Reininghaus. Lastly, Ralph Saml brings great depth to the role. Even though we only see him once,  Claudio Györgyfalvay brings something heroic to his role of Osama.

The production is directed by the author Gerald Szyszkowitz himself. Programme notes fill in many gaps, notably that Szyszkowitz’s mother’s family really bought a candlestick from the Jewish family Lustig in Graz, which explains why it is important for him to tell this complex story.

There is certainly a lot to take in, but even though a few speeches could have been shorter, the end pulls the entire story together. The use of sets is minimal, just a few garden chairs, a canvas with a sea view pictured and a wooden boat, but along with Béla Fischer at the piano and violin, not a lot more is needed to tell this thought-provoking story.