A CurtainUp Review
The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant
By Elyse Sommer
While best known as a film director, the late Werner Rainer Fassbinder began his career in the theater. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1973) was in fact a play before it become something of a cult film.
Now, Ian Belton and Barbara Sauermann, have taken this steamy Lesbian love triangle full circle, and adapted the film for the stage. And if you think Fassbinder's work was stylized and full of self-conscious acting, wait until you see the adaptation that's just opened at the Henry Miller Theatre.
As if to offset the fact that Petra's story has lost much of its original shock effect, Belton and Sauermann have taken Fassbinder's method to new heights. The result is a dark and spooky affair, more camp than tragic, and, above all, visually dazzling.
Petra von Kant (Rebecca Wisocky) is, like many of Fassbinder's women, high-strung and bathed in an aura of uninhibited, undefinable sexuality. After a failed heterosexual marriage (apparently her most recent since she also has a teen aged daughter in boarding school), she falls madly in love with Karin (Tami Dixon), a poor girl with a troubled family background. Karin treats her as badly as she treats her slavishly devoted assistant Marlene (Anita Durst). In short these relationships are mirror images.
Actual mirrors, constructed as a large moveable screen on wheels, are also part of the hothouse flavor of Jeff Cowie's fur covered and draped set for the apartment in which the story unfolds. Thus, like voyeurs, we see some of Petra and Marlene's movements only as reflected in those mirrored panels.
For all its stylistic mysteries, the plot of The Bitter Tears Petra von Kant is not particularly hard to follow. Petra is a successful young dress designer though it's soon evident that Marlene does the design work as well as attending to all her personal needs. Marlene's spooky devotion seems to wrap Petra into a dreamlike cocoon that protects her from the stress of her career. The total acceptance of Marlene's obeisance also establishes the blend of autocratic entitlement and dependency in Petra's character.
Winsocky is a smashing looking Petra and gets her nervous intensity and enveloping passion just right, but it's Anita Durst who keeps your eyes riveted to the stage. From her slicked down hair with its oddly drawn part and her mechanical but often dancelike movements, Durst is amazing. Her silent and unappreciated robotic Marlene is a cross between Joan MacIntosh in Ivan van Hove's deconstructed version of More Stately Masions (in which MacIntosh also walked around as if in a trance) and Janie Triplethree of Alan Ayckbourn's Comic Potential (but, of course, without that actual robot's enchantingly human charm).
The passion that ends up causing Petra the bitter tears of the title begins at the end of a visit from her married friend Sidonie (Rosalyn Coleman) to whom she details her disgust with her ex-husband ("his chewing actually hurt my ears!"). When Karin comes to pick up Sidonie, Petra's feelings are instantly apparent. Though they meet only for a minute it's clear that they will see each other again. And so they do, this time both in handsome men's suits.
Throughout their first date, Marlene lurks nearby, not only preparing and serving snacks but actually kneeling down and transforming herself into a serving table. After the lovers have spent their first night together, Marlene turns out to have been under the bed.
Unlike Marlene, Karin is not one to be bossed about. She is unfaithful (with men) and eventually leaves Petra. When we do see Ms. Dixon again it's at Petra's 35th birthday party, this time as Petra's daughter Gabi. Since Karin uses Petra who in turn abuses Gabi this would be a smart casting move, if Ms. Dixon's acting was up to the challenge.
This explosive party, also attended by Petra's mother Valerie (Joy Franz) and Sidonie, does nevertheless offer another striking image. After Gabi is in tears because Petra has turned on her yelling "Get away from me, you miserable mistake," it is Marlene who takes the girl into her arms.
Do Petra's bitter tears over her aborted love affair finally stop? If so, how? Does her mother's suggestion to seek out God again help? As always, Marlene has a solution. But I'll leave it to you to find out what it is for yourself.
A note about the theater. While this play is tagged as an Off-Broadway production and has an Off-Off-Broadway sensibility, the Henry Miller Theatre was built in a Georgian design befitting the home of prestigious Broadway plays. During the last quarter century the theater has deteriorated into a home for porno movies and a series of nightclubs. Three years ago, its seediness oroved the ideal site-specific setting for Sam Mendes' gritty Cabaret. . That musical has since moved on to Studio 54. While The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant takes place in an elegant apartment, the decadent hues of that elegance and the play' s emotionally battered characters also seem an apt fit.
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