At Theatertreffen, the Hobbits Are Yodeling

At Theatertreffen, the Hobbits Are Yodeling

“Where is Frodo?” an actress dressed as Gollum asked as she crawled past me, sounding slightly panic stricken.

It was the first thing I heard when I entered “Gigantic in Middle-earth” (“Riesenhaft in Mittelerde”), an ambitious immersive theatrical experience inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” The work is one of 10 productions selected for this year’s Theatertreffen, the annual springtime celebration of the best of German theater.

To step inside the elaborate staging, which originated at the Schauspielhaus Zürich, in Switzerland, was to plunge headlong into a lovingly prepared yet scrappy version of Tolkien’s fantasy world. As much a playful examination of Tolkien superfandom as it was a retelling of the author’s saga, the show came to life humorously, energetically and sometimes epically with music, puppetry, video, dramatic light, swirling fog and blowing leaves. The audience is in the midst of the action, sitting and standing among the nearly 20 constantly moving performers.

The forces required for this extravaganza, a collaboration between Schauspielhaus Zürich, Theater HORA and the Helmi puppet theater, were monumental. The show boasted four directors, including one of the Schauspielhaus’s artistic leaders, Nicolas Stemann, who also played piano throughout the evening.

The most memorable performances came from members of Theater HORA. The Swiss company, which works with actors with cognitive and developmental disabilities, has recently been featured in weighty productions at the Salzburg Festival in Austria and in Liège, Belgium, that explored the challenges of living with Down syndrome and other conditions. Here, it was pure joy to watch HORA’s actors embrace their inner hobbits, dwarves, wizards, orcs and elves — including one that yodels!

The giant foam puppets and masks made by Das Helmi added to the production’s handmade aesthetic, which seems designed to cut against the grain of the mega-budget Peter Jackson films, with their painstaking fidelity to Tolkien. Indeed, a running joke in the show imagines the author’s estate threatening to withdraw the performance rights if the creative team and actors take too many liberties with their source material.

Yet in its quirky and utterly sincere way, full of enthusiasm for Tolkien’s vivid world building and the wild devotion it has inspired, “Gigantic in Middle-earth,” is faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of his books. By ushering us into a fantasy world pitched somewhere between a fairground, a dance club and a fun house, it also enlarges our understanding of theater as a conduit for powerful mythologies.

The show was a much-needed dose of escapism during the first half of a Theatertreffen that favored more serious themes. Along with Gisèle Vienne’s uncanny “Extra Life,” about siblings who share a history of sexual abuse and which was first seen at the Ruhrtriennale festival last year, the festival chose plays by two of Berlin’s leading theater makers that take wildly different approaches to exploring trauma.

Falk Richter’s “The Silence” is a quietly enraged auto-fictional exploration of its writer-director’s fraught family life. And Yael Ronen’s “Bucket List” is an unconventional and surreal musical that poses the question: What if it were possible to erase memories that are too much to bear?

Both productions come from the Schaubühne, one of Berlin’s leading theaters, which hadn’t been invited to Theatertreffen since 2018. This year, it is the only Berlin playhouse at the festival, which makes its double victory all the more impressive.

Alone onstage in “The Silence,” the actor Dimitrij Schaad recites a dramatic monologue about Richter’s troubled childhood, his chilly relationship with his parents and the persecution and intolerance he faced growing up gay in West Germany in the 1980s. Schaad’s finely variegated performance captures the pain, rage and sorrow at the core of a character who spent his youth as a misunderstood outsider.

At the center of Richter’s torment is the silence of the work’s title: the deep repression and loneliness that characterized his early life. In a series of video interviews projected during the production, Richter confronts his mother, opening up to her while accusing her of a litany of parental sins, including reading his diary.

But there was little that was revelatory, or even new, about “The Silence,” either in conception or execution, and like much auto-fiction, it suffered from a mix of self-pitying and navel gazing. It is well written and finely performed, but I was surprised that it had beaten out the 689 other productions from 82 cities that Theatertreffen’s jury considered for a coveted spot on the lineup.

On the other hand, I was extremely pleased that the other Schaubühne production had made the cut. Two years ago, Ronen teamed up with the singer-songwriter Shlomi Shaban for “Slippery Slope,” a deliriously entertaining musical about cancel culture that played at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin.

“Bucket List” is the duo’s darker and more abstract follow-up: a hallucinatory revue about a man undergoing a procedure to delete his painful recollections. It features Broadway-style numbers, jazz and even a tango, in which disconnected memories play out in a series of vignettes.

Ronen and Shaban are Israeli, and “Bucket List” seems haunted by the Hamas attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. The show began rehearsals on Oct. 9, and although there are no direct references to the attack and its aftermath, it is hinted at in both the dialogue and the onstage action. One of the most chilling moments in the show comes when cast members, clad in black, bend down to pick up white baby clothes from the floor and cradle them in their arms.

Ultimately, however, the play’s themes are more philosophical than political. Like “Gigantic in Middle-earth” and “The Silence,” “Bucket List” is concerned, fundamentally, with how stories, personal or mythic, help ground our sense of identity. As one of the characters wonders early in the show: “How am I supposed to live without a narrative? That makes me feel so abstract, almost avant-garde.”

At various venues in Berlin and Potsdam, Germany, through May 20;

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