Katzelmacher | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader


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Center Theater

Speed marked the brief but stunningly prolific career of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He made four or five feature films a year during the 1970s. In fact, between November 1969 and November 1970--his first year of filmmaking--he wrote and directed nine films, and starred in some of them as well. To get actors to work at this pace, he cultivated in them a kind of slavish dependence on him. To produce his first film, for example, he imposed a 50 percent tax on the earnings of his company members (he was directing a group called the Antitheatre), which everyone agreed to. Then he proceeded to star in the film himself, giving most of the other company members bit parts. Fassbinder had continual run-ins with censors and municipal authorities, and his furious output was fueled by an endless stream of booze, drugs, sex, and violence. It came as no surprise when he simply failed to wake up one morning in 1982.

Seen against the backdrop of his tangled life, which eventually spun out of control, Fassbinder's first play seems tragically sweet--an eloquent, passionate plea for some sort of peace in an urban jungle. Katzelmacher focuses on a group of young German blue-collar workers disillusioned with their directionless lives. They project all their self-hatred onto Jorgos (David Tatosian), a Greek guest worker. In their eyes, he's the cause of all their troubles: he will steal their jobs and uproot the social order. To the men he represents predatory sexuality, and to the women their sexualized ideal. At once idolized and vilified by the German townspeople, eventually he's beaten senseless by the men. As one woman says, in a voice chillingly prophetic of the kind of violence perpetrated against foreigners in Germany and other countries around the world, "We should wipe that kind out, just wipe them out."

Fassbinder's script is compact and efficient. Written as a series of brief, highly charged scenes, some no longer than four lines, the play's structure seems as impulsive as the characters who inhabit it. The scenes begin and end abruptly, without any indication in the text of the location or time of day. It reads almost like a transcript, as each fragmentary scene adds to the momentum that ultimately leads to violence.

While enormous credit should be given to Center Theater for tackling this historically important work, their production is just not up to speed. The play, which takes about 20 minutes to read, runs for nearly an hour and a half onstage. Director Dan LaMorte has made his Katzelmacher deliberately mannered, with lots of brooding silences and thoughtful pauses. While the intent is to convey the text's psychological weight, the result is just the opposite. By dwelling on Fassbinder's points even as he's moving on to his next thought, the production collapses under its own weight. The broad, darkly satirical writing and pointed observations cannot stand up to the kind of scrutiny LaMorte gives them.

LaMorte has also added a lot of material to the script, most of it played in silence. There are several long sections during which the characters act out some of the underlying tensions: two men cut a secret deal; a romantic advance turns violent; a woman looks in the mirror and cries. These repetitive, unnecessary tableaux simply illustrate the dynamics already apparent in the text.

The treatment of Jorgos is equally problematic. In the script Jorgos is the outsider, both literally and figuratively--the unknown figure, the blank slate, the stranger, reminiscent of Melville's Bartleby or Camus' Meursault. In psychological terms, he's the shadow self, embodying those parts of our personality we would just as soon leave in the dark. Seen through this lens, it's no surprise that the townspeople's reaction to Jorgos is violent and contradictory--which this production certainly captures. Specifically, they see Jorgos as pure libido, a dangerous, depraved sexual animal that can never be sated.

But Fassbinder's presentation of Jorgos neither confirms nor denies the townspeople's fantasy: in the script Jorgos remains something of a cipher. The problem is not Jorgos but the townspeople's pathological programming: he might be any foreigner and they'd see him as a sexual monster. In this production, however, Tatosian plays Jorgos as a man constantly aware of his sexuality. He saunters about the stage with a continual gleam in his eye. But reducing his character to pure sex confirms the fantasies of the townspeople and eliminates the tension between Jorgos the real person and Jorgos the scapegoat. The collective response becomes problematic not in nature but in degree, and the central moral dilemma is diluted.

This production opens with a stylized scene in which all the actors are dressed in white underwear and toss a red playground ball back and forth; eventually the game degenerates into a sexually charged power play. At the final moment of the show, that ball is heard bouncing offstage, as if the entire cycle were about to begin again. If this framing device is intended to underscore the cyclical nature of the abuses of power, it simply repeats what the play makes clear on its own. And if it's intended to suggest that at base the serious problems addressed in the play are little more than a childish game, well, such an analysis wears thin after an hour and a half.


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