January 25, 26, 31 and February 1, 2013
Big Secret Theatre
Poor Ludwig Meyer. Not only was he born a Jew in Nazi Germany, he also had the misfortune of being gay at a time when neither Nazi nor later German laws allowed for any sort of love or sexual contact between two males. You’d think his story was wretched enough, but now One Yellow Rabbit & Theaterlabor theatre companies have quite possibly made it worse by producing a thin, emotionally stagnant and purposeless forty-five minute show about his life.
Described as a doppelgänger production, the one-man show, Schlachter-Tango (Slaughters’ Tango), is the result of years of collaboration between Calgary’s Rabbits and the experimental German theatre company. They have shared ideas, watched each others work and even traded plays. Recently, Theaterlabor produced a German adaptation of the Rabbit show Smash Cut Freeze by Denise Clarke and now it’s the Rabbit’s turn to open the stage to their counterpart’s work.
Schlachter-Tango , an apparently true tale, documents Ludwig Meyer’s foray into the pre-Nazi gay scene in Berlin, his arrest and internment in three concentration camps for a total of six and a half years, his liberation and thwarted attempts to receive reparation due to his homosexuality, fighting the system for his Survivor Rights, his entrepreneurial opening of the first gay bar in Hanover and his mysterious murder some years later. In other words, lots of fodder for emotionally wrenching drama, assertion of human spirit and triumph of will.
It is therefore astoundingly disappointing when none of these feelings or empathies are conjured up by the dry, almost matter of fact, lecture-style telling of the story. Schlachter-Tango is almost exclusively narrated third person by an unnamed character (the dreadfully miscast Andy Curtis) who announces to the audience that he is telling us Ludwig’s story because “it is so touching, bizarre, moving and because it’s true.” However, simply ordering the audience to believe something is emotionally charged is delusional narrative in the extreme. Without showing any meaningful insight into those feelings or giving us the opportunity to hear the story from Ludwig himself, any hope for engagement quickly evaporates as does true empathy for the story. Connection to the narrator was just as elusive as at no point are we told who he is, why he is drawn to Ludwig’s tale or if his motivation as narrator is anything but a “have you heard this one” kind of oration.
When our narrator does finally take on the personas of some of the other characters in the story, it is just as disastrous. Curtis plays a Nazi interrogator as though he were an American Drill Sergeant fooling around with the German term “hup hup” for effect. He plays Ludwig’s old Jewish German father with perfect English diction. Curtis’ Goering and Goebbels sounds like a comedy sketch between a gruff Dan Aykroyd a high-pitched slightly accented British man. But perhaps the worse offense is the portrayal of one of Ludwig’s Hanover bar patrons who is given a flamingly gay treatment by Curtis that borders on offense. Throw in an onstage life-size mannequin meant to represent Ludwig that looks like it was made from left over dryer lint, and you have the sum total of the character development.
But more than simply grousing about an ill-conceived show, I am more disturbed by the opportunities not taken in this production. While I applaud Schlachter-Tango for not making melodrama once again out of the concentration camp experience (personally I have seen that plotline enough) they completely missed the chance to tell the intimate story of what it was like to be gay…and Jewish…. under Nazi rule. How did Ludwig fare in the camps? Was it different from if he were simply a Jew? How was he treated by the other camp Jews? Did they reject him as well? It’s a story that puts a potentially complex twist on the traditional Holocaust narrative and one that I would have been very interested in seeing. At the very least I would have liked more than flash-card, snapshot storytelling about Ludwig’s life after liberation. How did the experience affect him emotionally? Did it change him? We know none of this because the narrator blows all insight off with a bland, “Ludwig won’t talk about the camps” quip. We are told nothing and as a result we feel nothing. Not even when poor old Ludwig is senselessly murdered in the final scene.
David Mamet once said that a problem play is “melodrama cleansed of invention”. But in this case, I think Mamet would agree that Schlachter-Tango’s problem is invention totally lacking in drama.
For everyone – An emotionally bereft script that offers up little drama and no insight coupled with an utterly bland and lackluster performance. Do poor Ludwig a favour, he’s suffered enough. SKIP IT