La MaMa Presents Zagreb Youth Theatre of Croatia's A LETTER TO HEINER MÜLLER, 12/6-9
In the La MaMa return of Zagreb Youth Theatre of Croatia, a man plans and delivers a speech--a letter to the late activist playwright Heiner Müller--within the highly controlled and monitored space of Berlin's Tegel Airport.
The play, "A Letter to Heiner Müller" (Pismo Henieru Mülleru), reflects the discomfort of living in strictly controlled conditions, where locations like a hotel, metro, street or office are places of modern control and fear. Written by Goran Fercec (Croatia), directed by Bojan Djordjev (Serbia), the piece is performed by three actors, who roam from one control point to another in today's reality like Kafka's Josef K. Zagreb Youth Theatre is one of Europe's leading cutting-edge ensembles.
The hero of "A Letter to Heiner Müller" is returning to Berlin to take part in an East European writers' congress. In the first two thirds of the play, he goes through a series of simple instructions and tasks moving himself toward a sinister goal that is previously determined yet unknown to the audience. The atmosphere is suggestive; there is a sense of barely controlled fear and anxiety, but also of excitement about what is to come. One expects something radical; something that will put hero's very existence into question but will also liberate him. An act of murder or terrorism springs to mind. Ultimately, we learn that the goal is simply a guerrilla performance in a public space--the terminal of Berlin's Tegel Airport. Although the deed seems banal, in the context of highly controlled spaces, where established social choreography does not allow for any improvisation, even a harmless act creates social discomfort, if not panic. This 'artistic intervention' will be understood as a threat to order, therefore, a terrorist act.
The protagonist is played by three actors – Goran Bogdan, Danijel Ljuboja and Frano Maškovic – who represent the "modern man," cultivated, polite and submerged in the impersonal world of unlimited technical possibilities and ever more complicated rules. Edginess, fear and panic run through the entire performance. The hero is lost in the corridors of administrative bans and constantly monitored by unseen eyes. Danger from terrorist attack or the setting of a bomb in such a perfect system constantly hangs in the air, as well as the possibility that the system will respond by even more morbid control.
The set design is a waiting room, in which the audience is sitting along the auditorium walls as though they had accidentally found themselves there. There is a huge gray cube stuck like a bone in the throat in the middle of the visual experience, giving the play a tone of diabolical insecurity in a perfect world. There is also a breaking up of the action into small parts, not allowing the story to develop. This leaves the audience in an uncomfortable struggle to comprehend it in fragments, which is the basic intellectual motto and aesthetic charge of the play. The piece is designed by Siniša Ilic and Doris Kristic, with lighting by Marinko Maricic, choreography by Selma Banich and sound design by Nina Levkov.
This production is a NY and world premiere and will be performed mostly in English; the rest is subtitled. The translation is by Mima Simic.
Critic Vedrana Klepica described the production in the magazine Croatian Theatre, writing "A minimalist monochromatic stage design, intimately organized audience space and similarly designed lightning in a small space, all serve to shift the focus on Fercec’s text and give the spectator/listener a feeling of certain voyeurism, as if they’re witnessing something very intimate, a hacking of somebody’s stream of consciousness, which gradually, and with breaks and repetitions, creates tension and dramaturgically moves towards a concrete goal and event, creating in this free form drama nevertheless a strong sense of tension and direction." The piece was deemed atypical for the Croatian theater scene and praiseworthy for the boldness and contemporaneity it exudes.
Playwright Goran Fercec writes that the play started out as a deconstruction of the myth of Heracles, explaining that his approach was not so much toward the narrative story of the myth, but toward the concepts of body, masculinity, strength, rage, fury and power that help form the cultural and social image of men in the Balkan region. He writes, "During the process I became aware that it is necessary to find an antipode to this myth, by antipode meaning a real person, a figure who recognizes leftovers of this mythical super-body in contemporaneity." Heinrich Müller came to mind because part of his writing tried to re-articulate parts of Greek mythology, detecting political questions and situations from the twentieth century. The text was conceived as a series of situations defining the "irritating field of existence" and someone who refuses to submit to them. It also acquired the name "A Letter to Heiner M."
In 2007, "A Letter to Heiner M" won a prize at the international competition Talking about Borders, sponsored by the Austrian Federal Ministry for European and Foreign Affairs and the Austrian PEN club. At the awards, a staged reading of the text was organized in the Red Bar of the Volkstheater in Vienna. Following this, Fercec re-contextualized the piece and did extensive work on the text. Over the last few years, there were several staged readings in the region, of which the more important ones were in Novi Sad as part of the Sterijino Pozorje Festival in 2008 and in Ljubljana as part of the Preglej Festival in 2010. The evolving text has been published in theatrical periodicals, including the magazines Scena (2008) in Novi Sad (Serbia) and Kazalište (2009) in Zagreb (Croatia). From 2008 until the staging in 2011, the play itself was a part of different projects in collaboration with other artists. Its untypical dramatic structure attracted the interest of Belgrade visual artist Siniša Ilic, who in 2009 started a long-term project at the artistic residence of KulturKontakt in Vienna based on the re-contextualization and deconstruction of the text, examining its performative characteristics in the field of visual arts. His projects, "A Letter to Heiner M versions 2, 3 and 4," were exhibited in Vienna, Belgrade, Istanbul and Novi Sad. Ilic and director Bojan Djordjev also adapted the piece into a hologram installation for Prague's 11th Quadrennial of Theatre Design in 2011. In the La MaMa production, which is the play's NY and World Premiere, the group of artists felt ready to demystify the "M." and decided to use Müller instead of the abbreviation in the title.
The director is Bojan Djordjev of Belgrade, one of the founders of the TkH: Walking Theory initiative, a platform for interdisciplinary projects and performances. The visual identity of the play was created by the renowned Belgrade artist, painter and set designer Siniša Ilic, who is also one of the TkH founders. The protagonist is played by three actors, all members of the Zagreb Youth Theatre ensemble: Frano Maškovic, Goran Bogdan and Danijel Ljuboja.
Over the last eight years, under the leadership of Dubravka Vrgoc, Zagreb Youth Theatre has been putting Croatian theater on the map of prestigious European festivals and prominent theater houses, becoming a leading representative of Croatian culture to the world. The company's search for new forms, its sense of democracy, its anticipation of new trends, its styles of acting, and above all, its courageous and fearless way of dealing with contemporary issues, have made it one of the most ambitious and most fascinating theaters in its part of Europe. In 2008 it became a member of the prestigious European Theatrical Convention. The company is one of the oldest theaters of its kind and is located at Teslina 7 in central Zagreb.
"Youth" in its name is partly an odd translation from Communist times. In this context, it means "young" art forms, i.e. innovative. But there is another meaning: the ensemble has had equal success with children's plays and highly artistic performances of Croatian and world literature. It is considered the cradle of Croatian theater, since many generations of Croatian theater artists and other cultural leaders have come through its Youth Studio, which is now known as Zagreb Youth Theatre College. The ensemble's major works include adaptations of such classics of world literature as "Anna Karenina," "Medea," "The Great Gatsby" and "Gulliver's Travels," all staged by Croatian directors. In the last six years, Zagreb Youth Theatre has received 50 awards in international theater festivals in Brussels, Berlin, Freiburg, Nitra, Moscow, Heidelberg, Wiesbaden, Pitzen, Varna, Helsinki, Beograd, Skopje, Ljubljana and more. Zagreb Youth Theatre collaborated with the theatre of Jan Fabre in "Requiem for a Metamorphosis," which was presented at the Salzburg Festival in 2007, and "Another Sleepy Dusty Delta Day," which opened the Avignon Festival in 2008. In 2010, ZYT participated in The Orient Express Theatre Project, which brings together theaters from Turkey, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Germany to create a traveling theater laboratory that questions identity and explores concepts of "the other" and "the different" in countries of southeastern Europe, where East meets West.
ZYT made an auspicious La MaMa debut in 2010 with "The Garage." In that play, a father guides his introverted 10-year old son into a successful career in gladiator fights to help the family escape the clutches of poverty. Time Out (Paul Menard) wrote, "Don’t let the company name fool you: Zagreb Youth Theatre’s brutally nihilistic 'The Garage' is anything but kid’s stuff. The actors aren’t the only ones getting smacked around in this viscerally assaultive Croatian import centered on extreme-fighting-style tournaments. By evening’s end, audience members will also be reeling from this theatrical punch to the gut."
The company takes particular pride in having its plays now regularly staged at the legendary La Mama E.T.C.
"A Letter to Heiner Müller" is the culminating event of La MaMa's European Young Directors Forum, a series of productions, panels and workshops which begins November 29 to December 2 with "The Doll Ship" by Serbian National Theater, directed by Ana Tomovic and written by Milena Markovic, in La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre. Between the two productions, there will be a series of panels and workshops December 2 to 4 in La MaMa's rehearsal studios, 47 Great Jones Street. For more information and a calendar of events, visit www.lamama.org/forum.
The production plays December 6 to 9, 2012 at La Mama E.T.C.'s Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East Fourth Street, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 PM, Sunday at 2:30. Performed in English and in Croatian with English subtitles. $25 general admission, $20 seniors and students. Box office (212) 475-7710, www.lamama.org. Runs :50. Critics are invited to all performances.
Pictured: The hero is played by three actors: (L-R) Frano Maškovic, Danijel Ljuboja and Goran Bogdan. Photos by Mara Bratoš/ZKM.