The last thing the Volksbühne Berlin needs is more drama. That might sound like an odd thing to say about one of Germany’s most important theaters, but in recent years the company seems to have had all the histrionics it can take.
It has been struggling to regain its artistic footing after the dismissal of its longtime leader Frank Castorf, in 2017, to make way for Chris Dercon, a tony Belgian impresario who didn’t last through his first season. Then Dercon’s replacement, Klaus Dörr, stepped down before the end of his term, after women in the company raised allegations of sexual harassment.
When René Pollesch, one of Germany’s most acclaimed dramatists and a veteran of the Castorf years, was installed as artistic director in 2021, it was widely hoped he would be a purveyor of both stability and artistic excellence. However, Pollesch has struggled to restore the Volksbühne’s reputation as one of the most groundbreaking in Europe.
Since Pollesch took the reins, the theater’s program has been a hot mess, with critical pans and poor box office returns. Against this background, it seemed inauspicious that the Argentine choreographer Constanza Macras titled her latest work for the theater “Drama.” The show had its premiere Thursday, and will run in repertory at the theater for the rest of the season.
“Drama” is not a straightforward dance piece. Instead, Macras and her 10 performers — drawn from her own company, Dorky Park, plus some guest dancers — serve up a disjointed revue that is about theater itself, in the vaguest of senses. How is it that actors reciting lines written by someone else — often at a remove of centuries or millenniums — can ring true to audiences nowadays? Will they in the future? Using dance, movement — including Buster Keaton-esque slapstick — spoken dialogue and pop music, primarily in English and German, Macras’s intrepid and indefatigable troupe sets out to investigate.
In the show’s opening minutes, Macras gives us a potpourri of Shakespearean scenes in a jittery pantomime. Toward the end, we get a three-minute version of Sophocles’s “Antigone.” In between, she treats us to a series of goofy scenarios, including a particularly zany one without dialogue, in which the dancers become life-size Playmobil figures with their helmet-like wigs and stiff limbs.
In that scene, the performers’ controlled, jerky movements are impressive. Elsewhere, the cast display some startling physical feats. The most gob smacking is when the hunky dancer Campbell Caspary walks down a flight of stairs on his hands.
The 10 performers that cavort across the large stage pretty much nonstop for two and a half hours are striking dancers, although the results are far more mixed when they are called on to recite texts or sing. With gusto but varying levels of musical skill, they belt out pop anthems backed by two onstage musicians, and when the entire cast launched into “I Sing the Body Electric,” from the 1980s musical “Fame,” joined onstage by a local amateur choir, that gaudy number felt like the show’s grand finale. Alas, we were only halfway through.
As the evening wore on, cast members launched into heavy-handed soliloquies about cultural appropriation and artists’ poor pay. (“Dance is so intersectional,” is the worst line in a script with no shortage of clunkers.) Occasional self-deprecating references to the show’s own sloppiness come across as an unconvincing tactic to forestall criticism.
Taking in the entire spectacle is like following a sloppy brainstorming session through to its illogical conclusion. So why should we be surprised when Macras gives us a late-evening history lesson about Nélida Roca,theArgentine “vedette,” or showgirl, who held Buenos Aires enthralled from the 1950s to the 1970s. The real disappointment is that the burlesque show that follows is curiously low on razzle dazzle, despite all the feather headdresses and tassels.
Here, as elsewhere in “Drama,” Macras’ choreography lacks distinction. It was deflating to watch the dancers give their all to exertions that hardly seemed worth the energy.
As a chaotic vaudeville featuring dance, music, slapstick and confessional monologues, “Drama” bears more than a passing resemblance to Florentina Holzinger’s “Ophelia’s Got Talent,” a revue featuring an all-naked female dance troupe which is one of the Volksbühne’s only box office hits this season.
Macras doesn’t go in for the shock tactics that are Holzinger’s stock in trade, but she still appears to take a page from the younger and more transgressive practitioner of dance theater. There’s even a monologue about suicide that will sound familiar to anyone who has suffered through “Ophelia’s Got Talent.” And although it’s blessedly shorter, “Drama” is similarly meandering, and feels endless.
After two and a half hours, “Drama” leaves one exhausted, not exhilarated. It’s made up of many — far too many — ingredients, but drama isn’t one of them.