I’ve been struggling with my reaction to The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, currently being staged by Killing Joke Productions at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Because I want to love it as much as the rest of the audience did the other night. It was a small crowd, but the laughter around me was often almost deafening—that’s how much they were all enjoying themselves.
And there’s a lot to enjoy here. First, an all-female ensemble of six who really knock it out of the park. We so rarely get to see a show that has even one or two good roles for women, much less six. Second, it’s a script (by the late filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder) that luxuriates in its language. Each scene evolves in real time, full of intelligent, funny dialogue. Third, the thing really moves along. Crisply directed by Paul von Stoetzel, the production clocks in at a bit less that an hour and fifteen minutes (practically Fringe length in terms of brevity). Still, it never feels rushed, and never feels too long. Fourth, the design of the production is really smart. The show uses the space well, starting with the use of the big red curtain yanked open at the top of the proceedings to reveal Petra’s bedroom, and continuing with the repeated use of the staircase at the back of the stage to get characters on and off. Add to that the simple but great costume work by Kai Armstrong (Petra in particular gets some wonderfully sexy outfits in which to slink around the stage).
|the bitter tears of petra von kant, presented through may 28 at the bryant-lake bowl. for tickets ($12-$15) and information, see bryantlakebowl.com|
Finally, harkening back to that ensemble of actors for a second, you really couldn’t ask for better. Right in the center of it all as the title character, the production has Heather Stone anchoring this insane little romantic melodrama, and you need an actress of Stone’s caliber to pull this off. Watching Heather over the years, I’m continually impressed at the growth in her skills as an actor. She now has such complete control over her voice and her body, she can make them do pretty much anything—and here, she needs (and uses) every weapon she’s got in her arsenal. The character of Petra goes so far over the top she’s down the other side and up over the top of the next rise again, like some kind of spastic human rollercoaster. She lives so intensely she’s (almost literally) assaulting the people around her, whether they’re just visiting or working and living with her.
On the opposite end of the scale, the production has Amy Schweickhardt as Marlene, Petra’s long-suffering personal assistant. She never says a word, but whenever the audience steals a glance her way, they know exactly what she’s thinking. Thanks to Schweickhardt’s detailed work, her character’s journey is as clear to those watching as if she was speaking volumes and getting ten times the stage time.
As the object of Petra’s romantic obsession, the younger Karin, Amber Bjork is just the right brand of lost and careless. She doesn’t tap into Petra’s mood swings because she honestly doesn’t think that anything is that big of a deal. Though this character could have been a cypher, Bjork instills some personality in her that helps ground the story swirling around her.
Nicole Deveraux as Petra’s good friend Sidonie is hilarious, almost a scene-stealer. She clings mightily to accepted standards of behavior, even as her friend goes off the deep end. Trying to steer a conversation back into safe waters, or doing a double take when the alcohol fumes of Petra’s breath hit her when she gets too close, Devereaux is an uptight but well-meaning hoot.
Petra’s daughter Gabriele (Sarah Howes) and mother Valerie (Jane Hammill) come late to the party, but each quickly makes her mark. Howes’s teenage antics side by side with her overwrought mother helps crystalize the picture of how ridiculous Petra has become in her lovesickness, and Hammill wrestles Petra back to a semblance of reality as only someone with a mother’s patience can.
The trouble with the production doesn’t lie in its execution. It’s in the source material. As much as everyone around me was howling with laughter, I kept coming back to the one-sentence plot synopsis in my head, which is…
“Woman dabbles in lesbianism, loses her mind.”
…which, no matter how many different ways I try to spin it, is both homophobic and sexist. Sort of a one-two punch of “screw you” to anyone gay or female (or both) in the audience.
Yes, it’s “just a play.” Yes, the character of Petra would be just as ridiculous in her romantic missteps if she were mooning over a guy, or if she was a guy mooning over a woman, or a guy mooning over another guy. The foolishness that love drives human beings to, or rather the foolishness of the desire to “be in love” as a concept regardless of whether it makes sense, is a universal clown show we call get to share in equally.
And certainly things are better—for women, and gay people—than they were in the seventies when this play first came into being. But not that much better. The fact that I found the all-female ensemble so refreshing was precisely because it is so very rare, even now. Produced playwrights, living and dead, still tend to be (like the playwright here) predominantly white males, writing for predominantly white male characters—and predominantly straight ones. Outside of the Fringe Festival (and companies like Theatre Unbound and 20% Theatre Company), meaty roles for women and stories centered around women are hard to come by. Same with gay theater. I hate feeling like the PC Police here, but I have to be honest, when I start to feel like the audience is laughing at the characters rather than with them—laughing at the women, laughing at the lesbians, laughing at the bisexuals—I start to get really uncomfortable, and I start to get offended.
And yet, it’s such good work from everyone. So I’m torn. It’s a great showcase, and artists this good deserve a great showcase for their talents.
Maybe things only get better if you keep pushing those buttons, keep hitting the sore spots until they scab over and don’t hurt anymore. Maybe we need to laugh, even when we know we probably shouldn’t. Maybe a good production of something like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant should galvanize people to tell new stories, find the stories already out there that are hopefully just as good, just as wicked, just as funny. It’s been 40 years. There has to be something out there. Right? Maybe I need to get off my butt and do it myself, and push my friends to do the same. Theater only gets better if we make it better. The conversation only gets elevated if we talk about the things that bug us, and how to fix them. And then do it.