Bremen Freedom

Trap Door Theatre

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Emerald City Theatre Company

at the Athenaeum Theatre

By Jack Helbig

The story has been told a thousand times in a thousand different ways: an exasperated woman, tired of her abusive husband, murders him. The ancient Greeks made it the stuff of tragedy. Clytemnestra’s murder of her faithless, egotistical husband Agamemnon is the trigger for Aeschylus’ the Oresteia, and Euripides uses a scorned wife’s murderous bloodbath as the climax to Medea. Contemporary writers have turned the same situation into a mystery-novel cliche. But only a mischievous nihilist like German playwright-filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder could fashion such an ancient tale into a darkly funny comedy.

The darkness of his play Bremen Freedom is no surprise. Fassbinder, who died in 1982, made a career out of despair, populating his movies with characters leading lives of noisy desperation. Loudly bemoaning their sad fates, as the jilted lover does in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, or unleashing their cold aggression on the world, as the heroine does in The Marriage of Maria Braun, they make others miserable yet fail to soothe themselves.

Fassbinder’s comedy comes as a shock, however, especially to those who know him mostly through his films, which examine the wounded soul of post-World War II Germany. Then again, as Samuel Beckett proved, a bleak landscape is a perfectly fine setting for a comedy.

The 1971 Bremen Freedom is based on the life of a real woman in the early 1800s. A respectable Bremen hausfrau, Geesche Gottfried was pushed to the limit by the misogynistic mores of her time but found her freedom in a sugar bowl filled with poison. The play’s first ten minutes consist entirely of her husband’s barked orders and her efforts to comply with his demands: meek, compliant, she’s the very model of middle-class womanhood circa 1814.

Then something snaps. Gottfried poisons her husband, and to her surprise discovers life is easier without the lout. From that point on, every time Gottfried’s authority is challenged, she poisons the person who’s gotten in her way. And since the play is set in the early 19th century and she’s only a helpless female, you can bet she gets challenged at every turn by lovers, male relatives, even meddlesome neighbors.

Nineteen years after Sweeney Todd opened on Broadway, we can see the comic potential in a story about a likable mass murderer. But Fassbinder pulls none of the tricks Sondheim and company use to make their murderer more palatable. For one thing, Bremen Freedom is no thriller–we never fear our hero is going to be discovered–and Fassbinder never tries to win us over with such sentimental touches as thwarted love, a dream deferred, or a secret true goodness. He doesn’t even hit us over the head with the social critique buried in the tale. Instead, as befits a writer who reveled in creating “antitheater,” he presents Gottfried’s story as flatly and untheatrically as possible.

The technique will be familiar to anyone who’s seen The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, based on his play, or who caught Trap Door’s production of Fassbinder’s Blood on the Cat’s Neck. This simplicity purifies the storytelling, stripping it of those awful moments when the playwright tells us how we’re supposed to think and feel. But it also sets a trap for unwary directors. The last time the folks at Trap Door tackled Fassbinder, about a year and a half ago, they were almost done in by his refusal to tell a conventional story. Andrew Cooper Wasser’s direction of Blood on the Cat’s Neck was spasmodic to say the least: some scenes soared, and others were as dead as the air on a hot August day.

This time around, Trap Door has brought in a director from outside the ensemble, Kay Martinovich, and that’s made all the difference. Martinovich is not easily cowed by difficult writers, as she proved last year in her brilliant staging of David Mamet’s Oleanna, a production that revealed to me for the first time that play’s depths.

The script for Bremen Freedom contains little in the way of conventional dramatic tension: you can see the poisoning a mile off. But Martinovich finds the strengths in Fassbinder’s writing–character development and the opportunities he gives actors for finely nuanced performances–and heightens them to the point that Gottfried would be fascinating even if she weren’t offing people right and left. It’s part of Fassbinder’s point that the drama lies in her struggle.

Martinovich also allows Fassbinder’s comedy to emerge slowly and naturally. There aren’t many laughs in the first 45 minutes or so, and Martinovich doesn’t push them. But in the play’s final third, as the poisonings become routine, Fassbinder’s dark sense of humor takes over, and Martinovich wisely never stands in its way. Nor does she try to make it funnier than it needs to be.

Martinovich’s cast, both Trap Door regulars and new faces, is excellent, especially Beata Pilch. She plays Gottfried with just the right balance of pathos and villainy by underplaying every beat, effectively transforming what in more melodramatic hands would be a criminal monster into just another hardworking, repressed peasant woman, a woman not unlike my own great-grandmother. And maybe yours.

A more conventional if no less dark story is Roald Dahl’s cautionary fantasy for children Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The production by the Emerald City Theatre Company currently running at the Athenaeum is based on the 1971 film adaptation, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and comes complete with Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s treacly songs, including the loathsome “Candy Man.”

What saves the show from being just another forgettable bit of children’s theater is the touch of darkness that Trap Door ensemble member Michael S. Pieper brings to it. Last fall he directed Trap Door’s clear, intelligent, honest version of The Road to Nirvana, and that same intelligence, honesty, and comic spirit mark his staging of this children’s show. Pieper isn’t afraid to explore the dark side of an admittedly dark story, about a mysterious, somewhat threatening candy-factory owner and the five children he shows around his plant, four bad kids plus Charlie.

Finally the villains are all punished but their punishments wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying if Pieper and his cast, Trap Door members and others, hadn’t worked so hard to make their characters as believably awful–or, in the case of Charlie, as sweetly good–as possible. Bob Rusch’s Augustus Gloop is every inch and ounce a pig. Georgina Stoyles’s Veruca Salt is so stridently selfish and spoiled she always seems just a word or two away from a full-blown tantrum.

These extreme characterizations may offend those with more sentimental notions of childhood–and of children’s theater. But kids understand what Pieper (and Dahl) are up to, judging by the rapt attention given the show by the audience, mostly kids. They know when they’re being lied to. And like Fassbinder and Dahl, they’re not afraid of the dark.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bremen Freedom still by Mary Flipkowski.