Count Oederland | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Count Oederland 

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Shattered Globe Theatre

at the Project

Count Oederland, by Swiss writer Max Frisch, is a wonderfully contradictory parable, epic in structure and vaguely expressionistic, mingling fantasy with reality and brutality with sweetness. It's a darkly updated Don Quixote, the tale of a consummately respectable man driven mad by societal correctness and spurred by the actions of a psychotic murderer to lead a brutal and strangely whimsical overthrow of the government.

Although many critics have called Count Oederland, written in 1951, one of Frisch's least successful works, Frisch himself referred to it as his greatest work. It certainly remains timely; in our culture mass murderers become media icons, movies rely increasingly on fantastical heroes, and David Lynch and the Coen brothers thrive on their own brands of brutal whimsy.

The opening and closing scenes of Count Oederland take place in the study of Martin, a public prosecutor. Martin has spent his life in overwork and fastidious devotion to order. He is suddenly confronted with a case that disturbs him to his core: that of a quiet man, a good tenant and a hard worker, who killed his coworker with an ax. The world is mystified by the killing, but Martin understands the frustration, boredom, and numbness that daily life wreaks and that could lead to such a murder. He wonders, in fact, why more people don't pick up axes.

When an oddly fairylike servant girl comes in to tend the fire, the fantastical element of the story kicks into high gear and the adventure is under way. During the story we meet the prosecutor's unfaithful wife, her lover Dr. Hahn, the original ax murderer, his lover (the victim's wife), government officials, scores of lower-class characters, and a woman who changes names and identities but whose face remains that of the servant girl.

Our hero, the prosecutor, begins to believe he's the legendary Count Oederland of folktale, who goes around the world with an ax and strikes down those who oppose him. But things get out of control when he develops thousands of followers, who wear the sign of the ax, and fantasy turns into nightmare when they overthrow the government and establish a new order as rigid as the one they replaced. Frisch ends the play ambiguously--did the prosecutor truly snap, or is he just dreaming in his study?

Frisch's play is interesting enough to make the evening enjoyable, but Shattered Globe's production is hopelessly inconsistent. Director Adam Langer has cast a group of actors with wildly divergent skills. He also does some confusing things with location: slide projections indicate that the setting is Chicago, but the actors talk about villages and forests that are far too rustic to be in this area. Leigh Horsley's costumes fluctuate between modern citywear and European peasant clothes, and there are even a few foreign accents thrown in. In an apparent effort to show the play's universality, Jeffrey Shivar's original music contains an inordinately wide range of styles, from synthesized Wagnerian symphonies to 1960s Burt Bacharach-like ditties to Baroque harpsichord music.

Langer's staging is often stagnant and uncomfortable on Eric Wegener's spare, cramped stage, crowded by a center-stage projection screen that gets little use. The characters do a lot of cigar smoking, and the air in the small space gets a bit thick by the end of the show.

Performances range from the superb to the dismal. Joe Forbrich is the strongest of the group as Martin; he goes from overworked civil servant to obsessed mythical hero with only a subtle change in bearing and demeanor while maintaining the essence of Martin. As the conniving lovers Dr. Hahn and Elsa (Martin's wife), Charlie Mitchell and Rebecca Jordan work well together, in a partnership reminiscent of Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon in Heaven Can Wait.


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