FRAZIER GUNDERSEN VENTURINI
Sybil Theater Company
at Splinter Group Studio
Some things to ponder while watching Sybil Theater Company's production of Thomas Bernhard's Frazier Gundersen Venturini (things I learned from the copious materials included in the press kit, which the average theatergoer won't have):
(1) Thomas Bernhard was confined to a sanitarium from 1948 to 1951 with pleurisy, tuberculosis, and other pulmonary disorders. In 1957 he graduated from the Salzburg Mozarteum Academy with a thesis on Artaud and Brecht. Theater historian Gitta Honegger says that Bernhard's "essentially comic spirit," like Kafka's, is "not a pleasant one . . . but rather a mad laughter: the author's laughter . . . at the madness of the world."
(2) The play supposedly incorporates some events from the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Originally a disciple of Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein eventually broke with his mentor, declaring that words had no absolute meaning outside the context in which they were used.
(3) Bernhard's plays were written entirely without punctuation. The capital letters he sometimes used aren't much help, since all German nouns are capitalized. Bernhard's style is further characterized by "disjunctions in his use of language . . . represented by unusual or previously nonexistent constructions in German," as a translator remarks.
(4) The original title of the play--Ritter Dene Voss--was taken from the names of the actors playing in the premiere performance. In that spirit, the Sybil company has named its production after the cast--Amy Frazier, Karen Gundersen, and James Venturini.
One has plenty of time to consider these matters during the show. It opens with two women--identified only as Ludwig's older and younger sisters--speaking with the meticulous speed of individuals who know precisely what they are going to say next. Mostly they delineate the many ways in which they've been stifled. But we gradually learn through the high-speed chatter that their brother has been recently released from a mental hospital and is returning home with all his psychological maladies intact. His sisters are to bow to his whims--which are motivated by hypochondria and megalomania and include obsessive prandial and ablutionary rituals, subtly incestuous games, and endless philosophical discourse, every word of which his older sister dutifully transcribes. In response Ludwig says that his older sister's attentions are smothering him: "I want to go to a concert, and she takes out a season's subscription!" The supposed manifestations of his neurosis seem more the teasing of a hostile child inventing ever more extravagant demands, to which his caretaker obligingly submits. During the two hours of this ridiculous conflict of wills, the younger sister downs two bottles of wine and chides her siblings for their cruel delusions.
Bernhard's text is composed not so much of dialogue as of intertwined monologues--the effect is rather like Strindberg played at triple time. Unfortunately, the actions accompanying this verbiage are as predictable as they are petty. When Ludwig leans over a plate of his older sister's home-baked cream puffs, seemingly to savor the aroma, we know that the pastry will end up on the floor. We know that the lamp will be thrown across the room, and that the table will be cleared by the cloth being pulled out from under the dishes. We wait for these things to happen, our attention to physical action heightened by our shrinking from the staccato vocalizations.
And to what end do we endure Bernhard's neo-absurdist onslaught? The notion that truth may have two sides to it comes as no surprise, nor does the idea that the most banal of conversations can be manipulative (a concept explored earlier and better by Bernhard's contemporary, Peter Handke, in Offending the Audience--and even earlier, for that matter, by Eugene Ionesco in The Bald Soprano). The hypocritical power games in Frazier Gundersen Venturini are familiar these days to every theatergoer, thanks to the current fashion for dysfunctional-family dramas.
Sybil Theater Company's motives in producing this little-known play (premiering here in its English-language version) cannot be faulted. And certainly their interpretation adheres faithfully to the guidelines Bernhard suggested. This show is likely to inspire not thoughtful contemplation of the limits of language, however, but a desire to flee the theater and these characters for the freedom of a frigid, sleet-blown winter night.