maria vacratsis and nicholas campbell
As I wandered away from the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space after tonight’s production of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s play Through The Leaves, produced by The Company Theatre and playing until October 3rd, 2010, my entire skull felt palpably saturated with dense, swirling thoughts stemming from the gripping and exquisitely well performed piece of theatre that I had just seen.
Kroetz is a contemporary German playwright and although this play dates back to the 1970s, the cutting, spare dialogue, translated by Anthony Vivis, and the inarticulate inability for his characters to adequately communicate with one another is still vividly resonant here in the Twenty-First Century. The play is centered on the wildly dysfunctional relationship between Martha, an independent, successful, smart businesswoman, running her own tripe butcher shop, and Otto, a “real shit” of a man, who is a drunken delinquent. The trouble is that Martha loves Otto, and Otto cannot be bothered to show even the smallest amount of care, concern or respect for her. Yet he continues to mooch off her for housing, food, sex and the fulfillment of all his daily chores.
Ordinarily, I think, in dramatic two-handers like this one, playwrights are encouraged to offer up complex, multifaceted characters that will evoke a conflicting myriad of emotions in the audience. It is fascinating that in this instance, Kroetz bravely pushes Otto into challenging territory, not because he is so contradictory, but because he is such an absolute pig. There is no dramatic or powerful evilness to this man and yet he is also almost entirely lacking any redeeming feature. However, the audience does not need to delve into Otto’s psyche or to offer compassion, understanding or justification for his behaviour, because Martha teems with too much empathy and patience for him already and thus our attention is able to latch on to her and she becomes the tragic figure in the story.
My inner feminist was particularly fascinated by Kroetz’s ability to allow Otto to be so chauvinistic, so overtly and continually wildly misogynistic and for Martha to be persistent in her desire to show him compassion, to carefully try to guide his actions in a more socially acceptable direction, adamantly, but to no avail. Kroetz gives absolutely no indication of his own views about equality between the sexes, he neither advocates nor condemns his characters’ opinions or their actions, but instead just urges them to be and to continue to smash up against each other. Martha is a tormented character because she has such intrinsic strength, she is so smart and capable and she has an autonomous sense of her own power and her accomplishments, and yet, as she is over fifty and inexperienced in matters of the heart, her loneliness drives her desire to overlook Otto’s abusive behaviour because, although he provides her with little intimacy or affection, she considers this to be far better than being alone. Martha is a strong woman and yet, like all of us, her complex, and at times irrational, reality makes it difficult for her to cling steadfastly to the ideals that she knows are most beneficial to her psychological and financial wellbeing. Kroetz offers us an extreme example, but I think that inherent in this story, in the idealistic hope that Martha can somehow change Otto into a better man that will be worthy of her affections, is something that a great many of us can identify with; perhaps more than we would care to admit.
In this production Philip Riccio uses all the different compartments of John Thompson’s highly realistic set, to both thrust Otto and Martha’s relationship into the audience’s laps and to retire them to the back corner where Martha’s longing for intimacy gets twisted into a blow job lesson that Otto expects her to be grateful for. With two powerhouse performers onstage, Riccio wisely refrains from interfering with them too much, and allows the action to unfold from the organic nature of the text and insures that the tension that mounts between Martha and Otto is being both diffused and accelerated by even their slightest physical interactions.
Maria Vacratsis gives an emotional and riveting performance as Martha, always shifting from pragmatic, coolly direct, exasperated and analytical to a slightly softer surrender then back again, which never undermines Martha’s strength of character, only complicates it. Vacratsis always has a spark to be ignited and her Martha is willing to take on any argument, any challenge, and despite the fact that Otto seeks to make her feel small, inferior and inconsequential, she rarely mistrusts the knowledge that more often than not she is right. Nicholas Campbell is formidable as Otto. He is fiercely committed to exerting his dominance by undermining every aspect of Martha’s being. Campbell allows Otto’s vulnerability, his crippling inferiority complex and fundamental fear to peak through, but couples it with relentless meanness and manipulation. Together, Vacratsis and Campbell find the black humour intrinsic to Kroetz’s script, and create a powerfully mesmerizing dynamic for these characters.
Through the Leaves’ 75 minutes hurtles by quickly but, you may find that its characters follow you home for more ardent reflection after the curtain call.