Times change and things move on. “The past,” as L.P Hartley (1892-1972) wrote in his 1956 novel The Go-Between, “is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”
They certainly do, and it certainly is if you are German. There’s the disappearance of the Berlin Wall that was for generations a given fact of life — and with it the end of a communist era in Eastern Europe that few could ever have imagined would happen peacefully.
It is such seemingly chaotic change and the loss of old certainties and senses of direction that lies at the provocative core of “Endstation Amerika,” a daring revision of Tennessee Williams’s classic “A Streetcar Named Desire” by the acclaimed, avant-garde dramatist Frank Castorf, who was born in East Berlin in 1951.
Since he became artistic director of the Volksbuhne in 1992, Castorf has garnered a steady stream of laurels both for the company and himself. These have included picking up Theaterheute magazine’s coveted Theater of the Year award as soon as 1993, and a Nestroy Award for Best Director for “Endstation Amerika,” which premiered in 2000 and also earned the Best Stage Design award for Volksbuhne’s Bert Neumann.
Though based on “Streetcar,” audiences for its Tokyo debut would do well to remember that “Endstation” is a radical reworking.
The play is still set somewhere in the United States, but here it’s an America in which Williams’s no-hoper Stanley Kowalski (played by Henry Hubchen) is Polish and a former Solidarity activist, who spent five years in jail as a political prisoner.
Now he is living in a tiny trailer with his blousy blonde wife Stella (played by Kathrin Angerer), whose older sister Blanche DuBois (played by Silvia Rieger) comes to stay.
Castorf has their squalid home located in an area called Champs Elysees where the French presidential palace is located and the French name for the Elysian Fields — in Williams’s play the place is called, ironically, Eden. Despite this significant change, in many basic respects his play tracks the original.
So it is that strong-willed and stylish Blanche still seems to think herself a cut above the rest despite having — as in “Streetcar” — arrived with the scandalous secret of having lost both her home and her job — in this case teaching Polish literature.
Then, still faithful to the original Williams plot, frictions crackle between Blanche and Stanley, and as she becomes more frustrated, she tries to seduce his old friend, Mitch (Bernhard Shutz).
Throughout this production, Castorf reframes the original intimate human drama for a post-Cold War time, cleverly morphing the dialogue and plot so that — among many sad hilarities — we learn that Stella plans to video her baby’s birth and sell it on the Internet, while the low-life trailer has a video link to the bathroom. All in all, it’s a woeful way to live, and one that Castorf implicitly portrays as reflecting a wider, despairing void that, since that old certainty, the Wall, came down has expanded as globalized consumerism takes over.
Stanley is reduced to wearing a full gorilla costume for his job of selling chewing gum on the streets while at home he is repeatedly mumbling or shouting about his glory days in Solidarity, sometimes confusing Blanche with a long-lost comrade. For her part, Blanche dwells not in some fantasized antebellum South as in the original, but in the bloody struggles she imagines back in Europe and the injustice she imagines she’s suffering as the blind world refuses to recognize her worth.
Then, back in the tacky trailer home we see on the otherwise uncluttered stage, disconnections and disjunctures expand to another dimension as Stanley and his friend Steve (Fabian Hinrichs) play guitar and standup bass to such incongruous numbers as Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and Britney Spears’s “Baby One More Time” — while from time to time lapsing into Solidarity anthems and marching around like demented soldiers.
Other than the songs sung in English, the action takes place in German, with interludes in French and ironic but fascinating commentaries and explanations in Japanese flashed on a big electric “advertising” billboard hanging high up outside the trailer.
While staying true to the spirit of Williams’s masterful examination of humans’ complexity and identity — especially through the opposing natures of lackadaisical Stanley and pretentious Blanche — this “Endstation Amerika” adds new layers of commentary on contemporary U.S. life and values.
But in highlighting its characters’ feelings of loss and emptiness that follow the frustration of once fervent and optimistic hopes, it speaks not only to America, nor even just to once-divided Germany, but to a far wider audience across the capitalist world, not least to this nation of compulsive consumers.
Allied to Castorf’s exciting, multimedia staging, which makes excellent use of modern theatrical effects, pop music and video, this exciting production finishes as something of a postmodern triumph of adaptation. The production ends with the trailer rising up and tilting, so that most of its hard-earned but valueless contents spill out like garbage in a final sardonic comment not only on the items themselves, but the units of labor that were used to acquire those talismans of such vapid dreams.
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