Wednesday, September 22, 2010

22 Sep'10

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Anyone who might be inclined to rush out to catch the Company Theatre's production of THROUGH THE LEAVES on the basis of playwright Xaver Kroetz's ongoing popularity in his native Germany might be well advised to remember, if only for a moment, that this is also the country that gave us filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

For while designer John Thompson happily avoids in his sets, costumes and lighting, the bile-tinted palette so beloved by the iconic German filmmaker, the playwright nonetheless leads us into the same slough of human despair from which Fassbinder forced us to drink.

Translated from its native German by Anthony Vivis, THROUGH THE LEAVES -- currently playing in the Tarragon's Extra Space -- is a tragic love story, of sorts, between Martha (played by Maria Vacratsis) and Otto (played by Nicholas Campbell).

Well beyond the first blush of youth, we meet them near the very beginning of their affair -- if it can be called that -- as Maria prepares to entertain Otto in the back room of her butcher shop, which specializes in tripe and the assorted offal Europeans seem to find more appetizing than their North American counterparts, even if a lot of it is simply fed to pampered pets. It is a business Martha inherited from her parents, but she's worked hard to keep it afloat -- an exercise that has not only supported her but distracted her for years from the fact that she is slowly drowning in a sea of loneliness. Now, suddenly there is Otto, obviously someone Martha considers a catch even though it is obvious to even the most casual observer that his best-before date is clearly a matter of ancient history.

But even though these are clearly two people striving to find a way out of the isolation that threatens to consume them, it seems the closer Martha and Otto become, the more impossible it is for them to connect in anything but the most rudimentary sexual fashion. While everything in Martha seems willing to do just about anything and everything she possibly can to bind Otto to her, the native intelligence that has brought her comparative success in her business holds her back and demands she maintain a degree of independence, even while she strives to involve Otto in her life.

Meanwhile, for Otto, Martha's success proves as problematic as her insurmountable plainness, and he strives not only to dominate her, but to cut her down to his level -- and what ensues over the 75 minutes of the production has a terrible beauty, for all that it is often far from pretty.

In his directorial debut, Phillip Riccio, co-artistic director of The Company, gives us an admirably constrained and understated production -- so constrained and understated, in fact, that one wishes he'd provided a bit more emotional texture and shape to both performances, for while both his principals turn in fine performances, one is hungering for human roughage by the time the curtain falls.

For a woman who has spent her life alone, Vacratsis' Martha seems to exist on a surprisingly barren emotional plain throughout, even while she's making the diary entries that drive the show. Meanwhile, Campbell simply wallows in Otto's chauvinism and misogyny, without ever really allowing us a glimpse of the demons that consume him.

Still, it's compelling theatre. And while one is left feeling that they can't really see the forest for the leaves, at least we've had a tantalizing and terrifying glimpse of the heartbreaking demons who make it home.

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