It may be a theater first for you. It certainly was for me. I sat in St. Ann’s Warehouse reading English supertitles of a play being performed in German that’s based on a French novel. Operagoers are used to this babble, although the universal language of music is what carries you through there.
Thomas Ostermeier’s kinetic iPhone- and iPad-enhanced direction helps to carry you through “History of Violence,” which opened Monday at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Edouard Louis’ autobiographical novel of the same title, written in 2016, has been adapted from the French into German by Ostermeier, Louis and Florian Borchmeyer. This new stage play had its world premiere last year at the Schaubuhne Berlin.
The upstage wall of Nina Wetzel’s set for “History of Violence” is a white screen, the perfect space to project images of the actors as they record each other with iPhones and iPads in hand. It’s also the perfect visual metaphor for the survivor of a sexual assault who finds himself disconnected from that traumatic experience by the police, the doctor, the forensic workers, his sister and brother-in-law, and the limits of his own background as a middle-class gay man growing up in an ethnically diverse France.
Louis’ novel reminded me of a contemporary “Catcher in the Rye” in which a cocky, gay Holden Caulfield makes the mistake of inviting a stranger to share his bed. The stage version makes a different impression, and much of that has to do with the casting of Laurenz Laufenberg in the lead role of the victim, Edouard. Think Michael York in the movie version of “Cabaret.” Laufenberg is blond, frail and tremulously innocent. It’s an impression that heightens the contrast to the swarthy stranger Reda (Renato Schuch). Although he’s categorized by the police as an “Arab” and someone from “North Africa,” Reda is careful to identify himself as Kabyle, belonging to the Berbers from Algeria.
The play follows the novel very closely, although it’s often more fluid. In the play, Edouard’s sexual foreplay with Reda is sometimes interrupted by police officers’ questions. This dislocation of experience and recall is never captured as effectively in the novel. There’s also Reda’s monologue regarding his father’s first harrowing days in Western Europe. Delivered in bed in front of our eyes, Reda’s words turn into a confidence game that’s part of his seduction. In the novel, his words register as a quickly delivered backstory, albeit one that is riveting in its depiction of extreme persecution.
The story of Reda’s immigrant father finds a parallel in Edouard’s own mother. Her pathetic existence as a cleaning woman is delivered by Edouard’s sister, Clara (Alina Stiegler). While his direction adds a new dimension to the story of Reda’s father, Ostermeier mucks up the mother’s story on stage by double casting the actor Christoph Gawenda, who plays both Clara’s husband and the mother. That white upstage wall is now flooded with close-up images of Gawenda as he puts on makeup and a scraggly wig. We listen to the father’s story. We laugh at the actor performing bad drag. These two experiences should not be so radically different for the theatergoer.
The play begins and ends with forensic workers collecting samples of Reda’s fingerprints, hair and DNA from Edouard’s apartment. They’re wearing protective gear that covers them from head to foot (costumes also by Wetzel), and it makes for a very scary, visually arresting introduction. But it also detracts from Edouard’s mania to scour his apartment as soon as Reda leaves, long before the forensic workers arrive. That crucial mistake on Edouard’s part is muted in favor of delivering a visual wallop as soon as the play begins.
Schuch performs the impossible task of being the perpetrator who somehow manages to remain oddly sympathetic throughout. This remarkable actor presents about a dozen different faces, all of them ultimately belonging to one man. Reda’s pick-up of Edouard on the street turns that encounter into the most normal happening in the world, something that Edouard can’t later explain to the police without sounding like a degenerate.
Gawenda and Stiegler essay a variety of roles, and perform real acts of legerdemain with each new impersonation. As Edouard’s sister and brother-in-law, however, they resemble no French characters I’ve ever seen on stage or film. They appear instead to have stepped out of a Rainer Werner Fassbender movie, and one of his gamier ones at that.
Clara criticizes Edouard for being an avid reader. She thinks his penchant for carrying around intellectual books and novels is pretentious. In Louis’ novel, Edouard likens himself to Temple Drake in William Faulkner’s novel “Sanctuary,” and he quotes from Hannah Arendt. The play wisely drops the Faulkner reference, but has the character recite the Arendt quote very near the end. It’s unfortunate. The experience of watching “History of Violence” should not be summed up in a few sentences lifted from another source.