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Take the agitprop politics and innovative acting techniques of German theater genius Bertolt Brecht. Pour in an equal measure of melodrama from Fifties Hollywood soapmeister Douglas Sirk, director of infamous weep fests such as Imitation of Life, All That Heaven Allows, and Written on the Wind. Shake. Then serve up the blended sensibility of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the maverick German film and stage artist who died in 1982 of an overdose of cocaine and sleeping pills.
Along with contemporaries such as Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog, Fassbinder was considered a defining force in German cinema in the Seventies, part of a movement dubbed the German New Wave. Undeniably the most prolific and driven New Waver, Fassbinder whipped out 43 movies in the fifteen years before his death at age 36. Along with writing and directing films, he wrote for television and radio, and acted on stage and screen. He also was a mover and shaker in German avant-garde theater, staging fifteen plays that he both wrote and directed, and thirteen that he directed only.
Fassbinder's stage life began in 1967 when, at the age of 22, he joined the experimental Action Theater. By 1968 he had founded his own company, the Anti-Theater, which mounted works intended to challenge the conventions of traditional theater. (Under the Anti-Theater's auspices, Fassbinder also began to churn out films). Fascinated by how people wrangle with each another for top-dog position (particularly when supposedly in love), Fassbinder contended that such grappling mirrored the exploitation inherent in capitalist society, and he attempted to expose that exploitation in both his films and his plays. Yet he had no trouble playing the martinet toward the people around him -- a core group that came to be known as "Fassbinder people," as well as an outer ring of hangers-on, many of whom followed him in the indefatigable pursuit of his next project.
Karl Marx said that religion is the opiate of the masses. Fassbinder put a different spin on that famous adage. "Love," he once proffered during an interview, "is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression." He illustrated that view in films such as 1974's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (about the doomed affair between a young Moroccan immigrant and an older German widow) and his most internationally acclaimed work, 1978's The Marriage of Maria Braun (about a woman who rises to corporate power in postwar West Germany while waiting for her husband's release from prison).
Nowhere is he more blatant about romantic love's perfidious influences, however, than in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. Written for both the screen (filmed in 1972) and stage (produced in 1973), this brew of high art and camp tearjerker chronicles the power plays that occur among a successful fashion designer, her obedient assistant, and a young model. You can rent the film version at Bob Rich Video in North Miami Beach if you're especially persistent with the teenage girls behind the counter: "The Bitter what of who?" And you can see Petra live, staged by Akropolis Acting Company in their temporary digs at the Power Studios in Miami's Design District, a serendipitously appropriate space and location for this particular show. While the stylized production proves excruciatingly mannered in places, it redeems itself through sly wit, including wry fashion shows that do not appear in the original script but that here serve as bridges between scenes.
Fashion and youth. Obsession and scandal. Models, designers, image, sex. A day in the life on South Beach, perhaps. Or article ideas for an issue of Ocean Drive. And the subject matter of Petra Von Kant. Educated and cultured A a wealthy, self-made businesswoman A Petra has recently ended a three-year marriage and feels in control of her life. Then she meets Karin Thimm, a young beauty from a violent family that includes a factory-worker father and a submissive mother. (Say "class warfare" and you get a gold star.) Taken by Karin's youth and potential, Petra acts as her Svengali, helping to launch her career as a model and devoting herself to Karin even as Karin torments her. In turn Petra plays the abusive master to her servant-assistant Marlene. When Karin leaves, Petra descends into drunken agony. And she really loses it when her mother and daughter, as well as her best friend Sidonie, show up for her birthday party spouting platitudes about love and friendship in much the same way Petra did before she was overcome by unrequited passion.
Never known for creating psychologically deep characters, Fassbinder peoples his work with surface creatures whose destinies are revealed through fablelike narratives. Following Fassbinder's lead, director Ricky J. Martinez doesn't strive for complexity. Instead, he elicits performances that are broad, calculated, and caricatured -- high on style, low on substance.
In an unplanned bit of gender bending that nonetheless seems to serve Fassbinder's intentions, Martinez takes on the role of Petra. (Plagued by time constraints, lack of space, and the illness of the original Petra, Martinez apparently stepped into the part to save the day.) He's a lanky and petulant diva, reminiscent of Faye Dunaway playing Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Ultimately, however, although he goes through all the obsessional gyrations of a wounded lover, his disintegration seems canned. As the object of Petra's desire, Kelly Miller convincingly plays Karin as a vapid Eurotrash slut. Jennylin Duany's Sidonie slithers back and forth between loyal friend and curious gossip hound, reacting with comical facial expressions. Meanwhile, Petra's assistant Marlene takes in everything without uttering a word; yet actor Michelle Garvey lets us know, with fierce looks and rigid posturing, just how fed up Marlene is with her position.
These immaculately dressed cut-out dolls play their games against a shockingly stark set of white furnishings and white walls, designed by Martinez in direct contrast to the dark-hue, baroque, and claustrophobic backgrounds of the film version's sets. Costume designers Jennylin Duany and Jesus Lorenz provide elegant black-and-white outfits for the cast, including a series of fabulous hats. The overall effect is modern, angular, and cold, reflecting the shallow, self-serving concerns of the women while throwing Petra's histrionics into relief.
In producing Fassbinder's Petra Von Kant, Akropolis Acting Company stays true to its pledge to bring South Florida audiences theater not usually seen in these parts. While Fassbinder's politics may be obscured by his love affair with melodrama, and Akropolis's acting techniques may not inspire waves of emotional connection with the characters, this production nevertheless boasts a ton of style.
The guard has changed at Akropolis. Marta Garcia, founder and, from all visible signs, the guiding force behind the theater, has stepped down as artistic director after successfully mounting a production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame in January. Jennylin Duany has succeeded her.
"Marta thought the company wasn't going in the exact same way she was artistically," Duany notes, "and she decided on her own to resign."
Running a theater requires a slavish commitment to administrative work, fundraising, grant writing, and daily survival that Garcia sensed was holding her back creatively. "I'm young," explains the 23-year-old Garcia. "I still haven't even formulated my own vision of a very specific artistic direction. Living in Miami is all I have known. I want to travel, gain experience and access to other perspectives, see what's out there, what people are doing in Europe, in Chicago, in New York, in the world. When else am I going to be able to do that?"
Garcia formed Akropolis in 1994 because there was no other venue in South Florida where she could produce the theater she'd fallen in love with while attending the New World School of the Arts, the theater that excited her and that had turned her on to the stage in the first place: the European avant-garde of the Fifties and Sixties. Currently at work on a production she hopes to present locally at the end of the summer (Tadeusz Rozewicz's Mirage Blanc), Garcia plans an extended sojourn in Europe at the beginning of 1997.
Regarding her new position as artistic director, Duany says, "We all really work together as an ensemble. Even before, when Marta was part of the company, we all shared our views and it was very democratic. If anything, I would try to be an objective eye that supervises and makes sure we're going on the right track. I"m really looking forward to incorporating a lot of mixed media like film and movement and dance into newly developed works."
Like many struggling companies, however, Akropolis has been bouncing from one temporary stage to another since losing its storefront home in Coral Gables last summer. "What we're really trying to do after this production [of Petra]," concedes Duany, "is to solidify a permanent space.