Let’s begin with Fernando Hechavarría, who plays Petra in the Teatro El Público production of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, which opened last night, the first of a mere two performances at The Kennedy Center. To call this performance a “tour de force” is to choose, with “force,” a word that seems too timid to describe the dynamism and power of Hechavarría. Words fail — he must be seen to be believed, and to see him is to savor him.
Let’s move next to the production by this company from Cuba of a play written by, and famously filmed by, the German writer and filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Director Carlos Díaz employs an iconoclastic approach to a text in the distinctive voice of an artist who was himself an iconoclast — certainly an enfant terrible. The result is wildly entertaining and illuminative, at the same time as it does not do full justice to important aspects of the original.
And I loved it.
One learns from the program that the piece was a bit of a landmark production for the company and has been in its repertoire, including on tour, for a decade.
Díaz has cast men in half of the roles that Fassbinder wrote as female characters in the six character work he filmed in 1972. The men play the roles as women, although the drag doesn’t aspire to be fully convincing — a voice will scrape into the bass range; some mesh undies will reveal a sculpted, distinctively masculine ass.
The play focuses on a successful fashion designer (the titular P von K). In the first scene, she and a confidant discuss Petra’s recent break-up with a (less successful) man. Petra then meets a young woman, Karin, an aspiring model, and she falls. Hard.
Karin moves in and drives Petra to distraction, as the latter’s passion and possessiveness are confounded by the former.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
closes May 17, 2018
Details and tickets
Northern Europeans are not known for their emotional accessibility, certainly as compared to Latin Americans. The style of the Fassbinder film is distinctly different from the style of Díaz’ production.
The passion of Petra, in the film, is in stark contrast to the reserve of the world in which she lives, and the tone of the film is cool and deliberate, the environment nearly antiseptic, until Petra lashes out and breaks glass over and into the plush carpet.
Díaz takes a different approach, and the result is a fascinating experiment, as a distinctive style is delivered in a dissimilar one — say, Fassbinder as if interpreted by Pedro Almodóvar.
What’s lost is some of the subtlety of Fassbinder’s text. Fassbinder, in this and in other works (I recently saw his Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a beautiful film that is in a comparable vein), was able to track the disfiguring effects of passion with compelling insight.
Some of the detail and the fine points of the emotional transitions get lost, or glossed over, as Díaz and Hechavarría luxuriate in an over-the-top exploration of Petra and her relationships, and as the production pushes against the more realistic aspects of the piece.
Petra’s servant Marlene is a silent, dour presence in the film; here (played by Yanier Palmero), she’s a cheekily engaged presence. The actor playing Petra’s female friend (Roberto Romero) returns to a later scene wearing only briefs and shoes as a unscripted, ghostly iteration of Petra’s dead husband. Petra clumps around the apartment at one point in a single high heel, an astute depiction of how she’s gone off-kilter. These are the kind of flourishes I love.
Others made less sense to me. As an example, why does the play end with Marlene carrying off the miniature mannequin? You’ve got me.
The production is replete with these sorts of embellishments. Díaz puts the pedal to the metal and crashes through not only the fourth wall and Fassbinder’s scene breaks, but also through some of the delicate psychological observations and transitions in the play.
As an example, the climactic phone call (no spoiler alert; I won’t describe its circumstance) that triggers an important transformation for Petra is presented at the same breakneck pace as the comedic scenes involving Petra’s spitfire of a mother (Clara García).
The approach certainly pays dividends: it allows Hechavarría the freedom to revel gloriously in the character’s passion, even if at the expense of subtextual depth.
Hechavarría’s leading lady is Luis Manuel Alvarez, and he is a perfect foil. Strikingly and enigmatically handsome/beautiful, his Karin balances Hechavarría’s Petra wonderfully.
Hechavarría’s daughter is played by Alicia Hechavarría, a young actor with the same unusual surname. (Perhaps they are related?)
No designer is credited for the terrific costumes, unless they were part of the portfolio of Roberto Ramos Mori, who has the catch-all title of Set and Graphic Designer. The drag and hair for Romero is a particular success among the stylish and witty looks we are presented.
The supertitling is the worst I can remember sitting through. A high rack of clothes obscured the ends of the longer lines not only from my original seat, but also from the more centered seat I slipped into in hopes of a better view of the dialogue, and the lettering was pale and hard to read under Carlos Repilado’s lighting. I guess it’s a challenge to nail technical aspects like these for such a short stay, but I hope that, for tonight’s final performance, they can tweak that into becoming less irritating for us English-only’s.
That said, it was obvious from laugh placement that many in the house last night were hearing the play in Spanish and were not having to read along. It was also obvious from the number of empty seats that far fewer people were seeing the show than should see it. I hope tonight’s house will be fuller.
Fassbinder’s film is available to all who seek a more traditional version of this play, and, presumably, stage versions have and will occur that hew more closely to that original, or that better balance innovations against the characters’ psychological landscapes.
That is not this production’s intention. So, yes, it must be said: this is not your Daddy’s Petra.
But it is a wild and delectable ride, and a distinct and admirable achievement in its own right.
In Spanish with English supertitles.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Directed by Carlos Díaz. Featuring Fernando Hechavarría, Yanier Palmero, Clara García, Alicia Hechavarría, Luis Manuel Alvarez, Roberto Romero. Light Designer: Carlos Repilado. Set and Graphic Designer: Roberto Ramos Mori. Produced by Teatro El Público. Presented by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.