The Demon Within

By Hornby, Richard | The Hudson Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Demon Within


Hornby, Richard, The Hudson Review


The Demon Within

THE GERMAN THEATRE IS HEAVILY SUBSIDIZED, a tradition that goes back to the eighteenth century with the funding of national theatres in most of the major cities. (Ironically, at that time there was no German nation per se; "national" theatres were part of the long struggle to reunite Germany.) Theatre companies are huge by American standards with large numbers of actors and staff hired on long-term contracts all underwritten by the German government, so that theatre tickets are about the same price as those for movies. By the conventional wisdom, this ought to mean that theatres there are tame, reviving standard classics in lackluster productions or putting on equally trite new plays. Why would theatre artists want to bite the hand that feeds them? In fact, it is our American theatre, dependent on high ticket prices and private donations, that turns out the tame stuff. Theatregoers who can afford a hundred dollars a ticket, or the corporations and wealthy individuals who subsidize our nonprofit theatres and control their governing boards, drag our theatre down into banality. The German government provides huge financial backing to its theatres, but otherwise leaves them alone, with the result that the German theatre is the most outrageously experimental and challenging in the world.

David Gieselmann is one of a new generation of playwrights from the recently united Germany. His Mr. Kolpert is one of the most shocking plays I have ever seen, with violence, murder, vomiting, urination, blood, and of course full-frontal nudity. Yet I never felt this was sensationalism for its own sake; the piece has a strange poetic force and deep moral insight. I saw it at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles, one of the best smaller theatres in L.A., long known for highlighting new European work among its varied repertoire.

Ralf and Sarah are an unmarried couple living together in a spotless modern apartment in some nameless German city. The only thing unusual about their dwelling is the large trunk sitting in the middle of the living room. The two chat about a dead body in the trunk of one Mr. Kolpert, a coworker they have murdered for the thrill of it, to spice up their boring lives. But given their blasé attitude and the outlandishness of the unlikely crime, they may of course simply be fantasizing or joking, as they sometimes imply.

Another couple, a choleric architect named Bastian Mole and his mousy, slavish wife Edith, arrive for drinks and pizza. "Come in," cries Ralf. "We've loads of room. There's nothing in here except a dead body." After learning that the corpse was Mr. Kolpert, Edith, who works with Sarah, responds that she knew him and had sexual relations with him in an elevator, a doubtful event that is probably another fantasy or joke. The deadpan taunting continues, counterpointed by the most banal dialogue, including the lengthy ordering of pizza over the phone: "One number 42 with double tuna, one 26 with no chili, then a Four Seasons with an egg and a bolognese." When the Moles, and the audience, have just about decided that the dead body is simply a bad joke, an ominous knocking is heard from the trunk.

The pizza man arrives with all the wrong pizzas and four unordered tiramisus. It is the straw that breaks Bastian's back; he lifts the fellow by the lapels two feet off the floor, tosses him aside like a rag doll, shoves tiramisu in Ralf's face, ties up Ralf and Sarah, bloodies Edith's nose, and finally opens the trunk-to find it empty. Things calm down, Ralf and Sarah are released, and they all take up a game of Botticelli; everyone gets a Post-It on the forehead with a name on it, which he or she must guess by asking questions. Three of the names are standard-Bill Clinton, Goofy, Marilyn Monroe-and easily guessed, but Edith gradually realizes to her horror that her abusive husband has dubbed her Mr. Kolpert. She explodes in a rage, not against her tormentor but the unseen Mr. …

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