Vienna’s Ambitious Burgtheater Tours the Ruins of Europe

VIENNA — Martin Kusej, the new artistic director of the Burgtheater, Austria’s main playhouse, wants the Burg to be a place of extremes. “Extremely controversial, extremely varied, extremely urgent, extremely contemporary, extremely loud, extremely quiet, extremely Austrian, extremely international,” promises a manifesto-like text on the theater’s website.

To that list, one might add “extremely ambitious.”

Kusej’s first season in Vienna features 30 premieres (including five directed by him), which range from classical dramas to brand-new works. In mid-January, a new production of Heiner Müller’s “Die Hamletmaschine” (“The Hamlet Machine”) was the opening salvo of “Europamaschine,” an interdisciplinary series inside the stately Kasino, a former archduke’s residence that is now one of the Burg’s smaller venues. Co-curated by Oliver Frljic, who also directed “Die Hamletmaschine,” and the Croatian philosopher Srecko Horvat, the series features readings, lectures, debates and even dinners that address the question of where Europe is headed.

On the basis of “Hamletmaschine” and two other Burgtheater premieres this season, the answer to that question is extremely gloomy.

Müller’s 1977 play is a poetic and nonlinear reflection on “Hamlet” and European culture, with a strong feminist subtext. It includes no dialogue from William Shakespeare’s play, although Müller invents a number of Shakespearean-sounding quotes and scatters them throughout the dense text, along with references to some of the Bard’s other plays and German literature, philosophy and history.

The nine-page text can be staged numerous ways and is considered a foundational text of German post-dramatic theater, a mostly non-narrative approach to the stage that reflects on the theatrical experience and the possibilities of theater. In 1990, Müller, a leading East German playwright and intellectual, staged “Die Hamletmaschine” as the play within the play in a Berlin production of “Hamlet” that ran seven and a half hours.

Frljic’s production is a comparatively brisk 75 minutes and stars five actors from the Burg’s ensemble. Like the Croatian director’s recent production of “Anna Karenina” at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin, this “Hamletmaschine” has an engaging intensity that owes much to the actors’s quick-witted performances, but it goes off the rails toward the end. With little in the way of props beyond a red armchair and a coffin, the actors energetically perform a revised version of the text that includes quotes from Vladimir Putin, Victor Orban and Marine Le Pen, as well as multiple addresses to the audience. But such additions to the dialogue are, on balance, less successful than many of Frljic’s wittier staging ideas, such as a magic trick in which an Austrian flag locked in the coffin transforms into an endless ream of various European flags sewn together.

The production is also less effective when stating its political messages in more explicit ways. At one point, the actors introduce themselves as Gastarbeiter (“guest workers”) from other European nations, including Hungary, Ukraine and Luxembourg, and try to make a sincere point about diversity among Europeans within a parody of white nationalist rhetoric. Looking out into the audience, the all-white cast praise the audience for being “so white and so diverse” and quip that only white people can afford a ticket to the Burg. When the actors start talking about how racist and xenophobic Austrians are, the audience I was part of smiled back, as if comfortable in the knowledge that they were not that kind of Austrian.

If those stage gestures feel somewhat morally superior and banal, they are harmless next to the production’s nauseating grand finale: a breathless run-through of a sizable portion of the text we have already heard, this time performed by Marcel Heuperman, who is naked as he simulates defecation and sex acts on a large silicon pig. Is the pig Austria? Europe? Hamlet? By this point, the only question that had any urgency to this audience member: To flee or not to flee?

Two ambitious main stage productions lead us deeper into Europe’s origins and its ruins. In “Die Edda,” the Icelandic directing and writing duo Thorleifur Örn Arnarsson and Mikael Torfason conjure up a theatrical version of Old Norse legends from the 13th century. Interweaving these ancient myths with modern-day characters, they set out to create a new kind of theatrical epic, at once expansive and surprisingly intimate.

Arnarsson, who is also the new head of drama at Berlin’s Volksbühne, cuts the saga, with its cast of gods, giants and dwarves, down to size in an intricate production that is endearingly scrappy. Despite the vastness of the Burgtheater stage, the elaborate lighting and the apparently unlimited fog budget, the raggedy costumes and the slapdash scaffolding lend the proceedings a DIY feel. Live music is used to help string together episodes of varying levels of interest. We wince as Odin sacrifices his eye for absolute knowledge, laugh as an emotional Thor loses his hammer and listen patiently to a lengthy monologue about Torfason’s father, who imagined himself to be a modern-day Viking. The striking visuals and loud music, however, including an extended riff on Arcade Fire, are ultimately not enough to compel one’s concentration.

For those of a particularly eschatological bent, there’s more Armageddon around the bend in Kay Voges’s latest work, “Dies Irae — Day of Wrath,” subtitled “An Opera for the End of Time.”

After tackling the Bible with his stupefying play “Das 1. Evangelium,” Voges has turned his directorial attention to the apocalypse in another overstuffed theatrical frolic. The end of days, it turns out, is perfectly suited for Voges’s uniquely headache-inducing brand of theater, which combines rigorously choreographed routines and video on an endlessly rotating stage. Voges’s aesthetic is clearly indebted to the German director Frank Castorf, although it lacks the verbal exuberance or bravura acting of Castorf’s best work.

As the elaborate set goes round and round, various scenarios repeat in a loop. Peter Wallfisch’s rock soundtrack helps usher us between the episodes, lending a structure that was lacking in “Das 1. Evangelium.” In one scene, passengers start mysteriously disappearing midflight from an Air Mageddon plane. In another, a couple are filmed making love in a motel room (the sex is real, according to local reports). Other characters include a man dying in his hospital bed and a Beckett-like pair whose absurd exchanges provide some comic relief. Otherwise, the dialogue, cobbled together by Alexander Kerlin, is a patchwork of dreary quotes from the likes of Walter Benjamin, Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacques Derrida. When these are added to the poppy music and the twirling stage, the effect is often numbing and the two-hour running time feels much longer.

It seems this is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but with a yawn.

Die Hamletmaschine. Directed by Oliver Frljic. Vienna Burgtheater. Through Feb. 12. Part of Europamaschine. Through March 12.

Dies Irae — Tag des Zorns. Directed by Kay Voges. Vienna Burgtheater. Through Feb. 16.

Die Edda. Directed by Thorleifur Örn Arnarsson. Vienna Burgtheater. Through Feb. 15.

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Author: New York Times