I have a theory. It's anecdotally based at this point, but I think statistics will bear it out, assuming anybody feels like doing the research. It's this: that when the world starts looking especially bleak, Chicago's artistic directors start programming German-language plays.
And with good reason. Irish plays have their mystic pessimism, French plays their antic despair, and Russian plays their eternally unfulfilled longings. Contemporary English plays are plain nasty. But only the Germanic stuff has the philosophical nerve and artistic know-how required to put the horror of human life onstage and just let it sit there, unredeemed.
We may speculate on why that is. Some obvious factors come to mind, like the uniquely intimate, even collegial, relationship the Teutons had with horror under Hitler, and their subsequent experience of spending 45 years as citizens of ground zero during the cold war. The formal tools for turning those and other apocalypses into art reach further back, though. Georg Büchner in the 1830s. Bertolt Brecht in the 1920s (who, as a Communist, had confidence in the future yet understood the importance of a dispassionate analysis of the present). The Grimm brothers must figure in there somewhere. Suffice it to say that these men and their heirs developed a kind of X-ray empiricism—aloof, penetrating, necessarily dark.
Americans, on the other hand, have no aptitude at all for this sort of thing. We're the world's optimists, famous for our musicals. Even our most serious active playwrights can't seem to wipe the ironic smiles off their faces.
So, when things get bad enough—when we want a vision commensurate with the fucked-uppedness we witness around and inside us—we bring in the experts from Middle Europe.
And apparently things are bad enough now, because three Chicago theaters are either running or have just closed German-language plays. Until February 2, the Side Project offered repertory stagings of two early scripts by Franz Xavier Kroetz: Request Concert, which ends in a matter-of-fact suicide, and Through the Leaves, which the New York Times's Frank Rich once described as sticking "like a splinter in the mind." Sideshow Theatre Company is currently presenting Roland Schimmelpfennig's The Golden Dragon, a structurally beautiful, emotionally traumatic look at the black-market trade in immigrants—culminating, by the way, in an image that sums up the costs of that trade in the starkest terms. Now Red Tape Theatre has opened Hamlet Is Dead. No Gravity by Austrian writer Ewald Palmetshofer.
Palmetshofer's piece is more abstract than the others (which have already been reviewed by Reader critics), first of all because it's got nothing to do with Hamlet except insofar as it seems to breathe out vapors from the Shakespearean tragedy, evoking, reconfiguring, and occasionally inverting some of its themes and dynamics. Second, because Seth Bockley's staging of it is so rigorously antinaturalistic—a matter of six actors moving in neatly choreographed geometric patterns on a nearly bare stage lit by lines of fluorescent tubes.
A little surprisingly, however, Hamlet Is Dead does have a narrative. Twentysomething siblings Dani and Mani run into their former friends Oli and Bine at the funeral of another friend, Hannes, who died violently, his own father having shot him before committing suicide. The bond between the surviving four was broken sometime back, when Bine and Oli paired off romantically, leaving Dani and Mani as odd lovers out, with nobody to court but each other, and hence no socially acceptable way to free themselves from the extended adolescence they endure in the home of their deluded, angry parents.
As the only one who's benefitted from the way matters have turned out, Bine insists on getting the old quartet together again. Naturally, it doesn't go well. Nothing goes well. The story ends up folding back on itself with an awful symmetry suggesting The Mousetrap, Hamlet's play within a play. Just for good measure, Palmetshofer supplies a coda that magnifies the awfulness of it all while demonstrating the truth of Karl Marx's epigram that "history repeats, first as tragedy and then as farce."
If all of this is hard to watch, it's not through any fault of Neil Blackadder's excellent English translation, Bockley's austere staging, or an ensemble that manages to give us characters who feel true without getting even a little bit sentimental about it. It's because Palmesthofer never surrenders his rigor. His script is a labyrinth of Mousetraps: moments unfolding inside moments, realities intersecting dreams that breed new and uglier realities. His point is complex and, yes, pitiless as he exposes the structure of alienation. He's the right man for the job.