Molière’s Still Funny (Even in German)

Molière’s Still Funny (Even in German)

BERLIN — There aren’t so many comedy gems in German theater. It’s little wonder, then, that when German-speaking artists discovered Molière, France’s great 17th-century comic playwright, they set about making him their own.

It was Molière’s dramatization of the Don Juan legend that served as the basis for Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”; much later, the great actor Emil Jannings gave the definitive screen treatment of “Tartuffe,” Molière’s famous charlatan, in F.W. Murnau’s 1926 silent classic. In between, the playwright Heinrich von Kleist wrote his tragicomedy “Amphitryon” (1807), based on Molière’s 1668 farce of the same name.

Rarely performed nowadays, “Amphitryon” is one of the highlights of the theater season in Berlin, where Herbert Fritsch has staged it with manic verve at the Schaubühne. A Theban general returns home to find the god Jupiter has taken over his identity and is hotly pursuing his wife. Along with the mayhem and misunderstanding that ensue, the play vibrates with anxieties about identity: Its doppelgänger theme feels surprisingly modern.

Fritsch is known for his gleefully frantic style. His productions are brightly colored and heavy on physical comedy, usually without props but with plenty of music. His 2012 production “Murmel Murmel” consisted of actors repeating a single word — the German for “mumbling.”

Compared with that and other Fritsch productions, “Amphitryon” places more emphasis on the text, which is mostly rendered faithfully (though Fritsch throws some French, dispatched with outrageous accents, into Arthur Luther’s German translation). It’s certainly more prolix and anchored by dialogue. You sense the director has become punch-drunk from Molière’s verbal acrobatics.

Which is not to say that Fritsch’s bracing brand of physical comedy is absent. Molière took much from the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition, and Fritsch’s production highlights this influence in its exaggerated and ritualized gestures — but with the sped-up energy of a silent comedy by Chaplin or Keaton and a dose of schlocky overacting. If, like me, you’re a sucker for outrageous baroque fashion, Victoria Behr’s riotously colorful sartorial creations are alone worth the price of admission.

On the sides of the stage, a pianist and a marimba player add a percussive soundtrack as the eight-person cast waltzes, jumps and shuffles across the stage. This comes across as a reimagining of the “comédie-ballet,” the hybrid medium that combined drama, music and dance, which Molière collaborated with the leading French composers of his day to produce.

The propulsive music (by Ingo Günther, on piano) helps pull the evening together and gives the intermission-less two-hour show a hypnotic rhythm. But the soundscape and the candy-colored costumes and set (a series of paper banners that suggest baroque stagecraft) work as elegantly as they do only thanks to the dynamic and accomplished performances that Fritsch coaxes from the Schaubühne actors. Much of his past work has relied on precision and formal restraints; here, he has given the players enormous freedom, and the result is both exuberant and tight.

The actors are enthralling individually, but the performance gains a supercharge when their wild energies come together, for instance when the entire cast belts out a pop ballad demanding vengeance for the cuckolded general.

In the title role, Florian Anderer anxiously tries to maintain his composure in the face of ever-mounting absurdity. (The fact that Jupiter, played smugly by Axel Wandtke, is a vain old playboy who looks nothing like Anderer adds to the hilarity.)

Joachim Meyerhoff, who joined the Schaubühne’s ensemble this season, makes his debut here as Sosie, Amphitryon’s equally flabbergasted servant. From his lengthy opening monologue onward, Meyerhoff brilliantly combines a fine-grained sensitivity to the text with comic instincts. Over the length of the show, he proves himself equally adept with Fritsch’s onstage antics and the subtler, more subdued aspects of the role. His is the standout performance, although Annika Meier and Carol Schuler are exuberant and feisty as the wives who have unknowingly consorted with the gods.

“Amphitryon” was the only time Molière ascended to Olympian heights in search of material. His better-known plays find the comedy in foibles, deceptions and misunderstandings that are all too human.

Across town at the Deutsches Theater, the young German director Anne Lenk has served up a sleek staging of “The Misanthrope” that is the tonal opposite of Fritsch’s loud, eccentric production. But despite its edgier trappings — a darkly minimal set, stylish modern costumes — it, too, is highly faithful to the text, which is performed in a modern, rhyming translation by Jürgen Gosch and Wolfgang Wiens.

Ulrich Matthes leads a strong cast as the cantankerous, rude and generally unpleasant Alceste, who despises the hypocrisy of polite society. (In the first performance, in 1666, Molière himself took this role.) Alceste has the rotten luck of being smitten by Célimène, a social butterfly and incorrigible flirt whose behavior epitomizes everything that Alceste loathes. Over the course of the play, the lovers quarrel and reconcile — repeatedly — in ways that seem bracingly contemporary and realistic. The young actress Franziska Machens’s Célimène is a strong-willed presence, and she matches Matthes, one of the Deutsches Theater’s biggest stars, in toughness and resolve.

Florian Lösche’s black box set resembles a playpen fenced in by tautly stretched elastic bands through which the actors force themselves on- and offstage. The large cubicle looks like some immersive installation room you might find hidden in one of the new wings of the expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York. The periodic bursts of electronic music and flashing lights, not to mention the modish costumes, suggest a trendy nightclub. In this world of ultrafashionable fops — several of Célimène’s suitors seem so obviously gay that the fact that Alceste feels threatened appears to be part of the joke — Matthes’s Alceste is a lethal killjoy.

With its brooding and moral indignation, Matthes’s interpretation has a touch of Hamlet in it, which helps make this “Misanthrope” the weightier — and more German — of Berlin’s two current Molière offerings. Lenk’s sure-footed direction is drier and wrier than Fritsch’s.

Molière’s sparkling wit still comes through beautifully, but Lenk resists succumbing to silliness the way Fritsch does, a decision informed, at least in part, by her source material. As social satire, “The Misanthrope” is by far the more pointed and shrewder of the two plays. Lenk makes clear the moral stakes of Alceste’s behavior and never lets us lose sight of the consequences of his intransigence; Fritsch, dealing with a romp about deceptive appearances and unstable identities, hits the mark with a far lighter touch.

Local critics have complained that this “Amphitryon” is all a bit too silly, and it has garnered Fritsch a fair share of bad reviews. Not that theatergoers here seem to care. Like “The Misanthrope,” it’s sold out through the end of the year. It’s good to see that 350 years after his death, Molière still has Berlin audiences rolling in the aisles.

Amphitryon. Directed by Herbert Fritsch. Berlin Schaubühne. Through Jan. 4.
The Misanthrope. Directed by Anne Lenk. Deutsches Theater Berlin. Through Jan. 27.

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