In Ritter, Dene, Voss (named for the three actors who premiered the original 1986 production in German), Thomas Bernhard explores sexual repression and sibling rivalry with characteristic tenacity and wit. The play involves two sisters – both actresses – and their attempts at reintegrating their volatile brother into their home. The brother, a tormented genius (loosely based on last century’s great, idiosyncratic philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein), has just returned from a mental health institute, complicating the dynamics between the three siblings.
Playwright and novelist Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) has been called “Austria’s most provocative post-war writer” (The New Yorker) and a “virtuoso of rancor and rage…a corrosively funny master of lyrical nay-saying” (Bookforum). Distinctive in his style – writing entirely without punctuation, but in accessible, down-to-earth language – Bernhard has been both revered and reviled for his provocative plays.
One Little Goat presented the English-language world premiere of Ritter, Dene, Voss in Toronto in 2006. Hailed by Canadian Theatre Review as “flawless” and by Eye Weekly as a “breathless, two-hour Beckettian farce…intensely mannered and exquisitely controlled,” the production toured to Chicago’s Trap Door Theatre in December 2007, where Newcity Chicago ranked it as its #1 production.
The cast includes three of Canada’s leading young actors, Maev Beaty (Africa Trilogy, Luminato Festival), Shannon Perreault (If We Were Birds, Tarragon Theatre) and Jordan Pettle (Stratford Festival, Soulpepper Co.). Original set and costumes are designed by Jackie Chau, with lighting by Kate McKay.
One Little Goat, North America’s only company devoted to contemporary poetic theatre, “has done audiences a huge service” (Toronto Star) through its highly interpretive, provocative approach to international plays. In 2009, One Little Goat presented the English Canadian premiere of Someone is Going to Come by Norway’s Jon Fosse in a new translation, followed by the world premiere of Talking Masks by Artistic Director Adam Seelig. Both plays entered the 2009 top-ten lists of Toronto’s EYE Weekly and NOW Magazine. The company’s production of Seelig’s Antigone:Insurgency was also a top Toronto theatre production of 2007 in NOW Magazine, and its production of Thomas Bernhard’s Ritter, Dene, Voss has received wide acclaim. From 2002 on, the company has presented the English premieres of radio plays by Israel’s eminent modern poet, Yehuda Amichai, in New York, Toronto, and in a podcast for Poetry Magazine. In 2004 One Little Goat premiered All Is Almost Still by Adam Seelig at the 78th Street Theatre Lab in New York, for which Seelig was called “one of the brightest directors” (Back Stage) of a “compelling and moving” play (NYTheatre.com, Martin Denton). Seelig’s new book, a novella/poem entitled Every Day in the Morning (slow), is being released by New Star Books this September. More information is available at http://www.OneLittleGoat.org.
One Little Goat acknowledges the generous sponsorship of the Austrian Cultural Forum NY, the Ontario Arts Council, the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts (TAPA) and Weiss-Rohlig Canada.
One Little Goat Takes a Bite of Big Apple
by Adam Feldman
The Globe and Mail
“Histrionic perversity”: such is the judgment rendered by Ludwig, a half-mad and wholly maddening philosopher, in regard to his two sisters, both dilettante actresses, who have just welcomed him home from the sanitarium. It is an opinion that could just as well apply to the entirety of Thomas Bernhard’s 1986 anti-comedy Ritter, Dene, Voss, which is now receiving its New York premiere courtesy of Toronto’s visiting One Little Goat Theatre Company.
Bernhard, the foremost literary controversialist of post-Nazi Austria, might not object to this characterization, for Ritter, Dene, Voss is nothing if not willfully outrageous. The overall tone is morbid – “It’s like the inside of a tomb here,” says Ludwig of his wealthy family’s Vienna home – and all three siblings stew in a bubbling sludge of rivalry, self-loathing and incestuous lust.
“My sisters are my destroyers,” Ludwig complains. “They annihilate me.” He talks that way a lot. “There is no greater folly than helping young artists,” he says later in the play. “Help a young artist and you destroy and annihilate him.” Other favourite words of Ludwig’s include “odious,” “repellent” and “nauseating;” his sisters are not generally much cheerier. (“This cul-de-sac is the only possible existence for us,” says the more optimistic of the two.)
Such dialogue, translated from Bernhard’s German by Kenneth Northcott and Peter Jansen, might be excruciating if played as straight drama. But Ritter, Dene, Voss is intensely aware of itself as theatre; two of its three characters are actors, and the play’s coy title refers to nothing in the actual script, but rather to the names of the Austrian cast of the original production.
Director Adam Seelig wisely draws out and builds upon the piece’s inherent metatheatricality. At several points he has his actors break out of character, and he situates them on an explicitly unrealistic set designed by Jackie Chau. (The art within the show is especially absurdist in flavour; it includes two portraits whose faces have been cut out and a pair of very silly surrealist nudes.)
Seelig’s cast delivers the text with clarity and distinctive style. Jordan Pettle brings a compelling mix of arrogance and self-pity to the “philosophical thug” Ludwig (a name that links the character to Wittgenstein, whom he resembles, as well as to Beethoven, whom he admires); Maev Beaty is touchingly natural as the older of his sisters, who dotes on him, and Shannon Perreault is aptly sharp-edged as the younger, who sneers and snipes from the sidelines.
For all the intelligence of Seelig’s designs on the play, however, Ritter, Dene, Voss’s would-be shocks have a whiff of quaintness. In the absence of more conventional theatrical satisfactions – such as plot and character development – there is only so long one can watch the playwright try to stick it to the Central European haute bourgeoisie before one begins to check one’s watch. Even 25 years ago, Bernhard’s overarching debts to such theatrical troublemakers as Antonin Artaud, Jean Genet and Eugène Ionesco must have seemed somewhat overdue.
One Little Goat is to be commended, however, for giving us a rare taste of Bernhard’s work, which some will surely be eager to acquire. Until now, a certain kind of Off-Off Broadway company – eager for retro-edgy plays about class, sex and neurosis, with small casts, single sets and swank Continental pedigrees – has had to stage Genet’s The Maids or August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. New York usually gets several productions of each every year. Seelig and company are giving such troupes another option to consider.
Stage Mage Review
by Jon Sobel
Canadian company One Little Goat, which specializes in poetic theater, has brought to New York a textbook case of how an exceptional production can spin a brilliant "poetic" script into a crackling drama.
Thomas Bernhard may be one of Europe's great postwar writers but his plays are rarely seen in the US. This is a shame. The production of his Ritter, Dene, Voss which opened last night at La Mama has percolated since 2006, and it is a thing of finished beauty.
Two sisters, wealthy actresses who perform only what and when they choose, prepare for the return of their tubercular philosopher brother from a sanatarium. Painfully, like the turning of a screw, the sisters exercise the frictions of their lives. Bernhard's fluid yet joyfully abrupt language (translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth Northcott) is the river from which the true, sad, spiritually ugly faces of the repressed Dene (Maev Beaty) and the looser, spiteful Ritter (Shannon Perreault) swim into startling focus. As Ritter indulges her obsession with reading the newspaper, passive-aggressively complaining about Dene's bossiness, Dene expands and dresses the dining room table as if by making it bigger and setting it she can sculpt a loving, or at least functional, family into being. When Ludwig finally arrives the tension has reached a high pitch. What will he be like? What will he do?
Equally important, will he spoil the play, so brilliantly constructed so far?
The character of Voss/Ludwig combines elements of autobiography with the life of the philosopher Wittgenstein, but whatever woes his progenitors may have suffered, his pains are turned to comic gold by Jordan Pettle. Into the brittle, stultifying atmosphere of the old mansion blows this swarthy storm of sarcasm and anger surrounding a quiet eye of pitifulness. Both sisters are eternally preoccupied with him, one like a mother, the other like a lover, yet neither can truly help him, not the older sister who wants to take him to a doctor, and not the younger, who hangs on his every word. Like a genius Hans Castorp, Ludwig has left this life behind; the mansion isn't home for him anymore. No perfect table setting, no embrace, no cream puff baked with sisterly affection can change that, any more than Ludwig's restless switching around of the family portraits can make these frozen people a happy family.
It's an old story, of course, one I think of as Plot A, the prime theatrical standby: prodigal family member returns and opens old wounds; after some sort of violence, either real or symbolic, family slouches towards healing. Bernhard's play first meets, then defies expectations, with enough linguistic flair and dramatic panache for two or three plays. Director Adam Seelig and his superb cast wear this wonderful work like a surgical glove.
Cultural Capitol Review
by Bonny Prince Billy
The title of Thomas Bernhard’s play “Ritter, Dene, Voss” comes from the surnames of the three actors who premiered the roles in 1986: IlseRitter, KirstenDene and GertVoss. It is worth noting as well that Ritter means “knight” and Voss is an aristocratic surname from the fourteenth cenutry. This is significant because “Ritter, Dene, Voss” is a play about the death of the Viennese ideal of urbane aristocracy and the horrible, beautiful flowers that bloomed in the rotting dung heap of post-World War I Austria.
The story is set in a stately old mansion where two sisters await the arrival of their brother Ludwig, who is returning from a mental hospital for the first time in a long while. They are rich, dilettantish actresses, who have never had to feel the sharp pinch of necessity. Consequently they are utterly neurotic and typically Viennese. (Could Freud have ever discovered psychoanalysis if he had grown up in any other city?) Their brother is a haute bourgeois Prometheus: a tortured genius, he is beautiful, frail, effeminate, and the author of the most important work on logic ever written. The entirety of nearly two hours is composed of rants and recriminations between the three of them, denunciations and defenses of the hypocritical social order, and a painful because impossible search for “truth.” Imagine Civilization and Its Discontents meets No Exit.
Adam Seelig, the director, paces the show at just the right tempo to convey both neurotic energy and soul crushing lethargy. His cast, three accomplished Canadian actors, Shannon Perreault, Maev Beaty, and Jordan Pettie, show that the difficult text — written originally in German with no punctuation — has not mastered them. Jackie Chau’s set design at La MaMa is elegant and minimal. All the pieces fit nicely together and accentuate the fundamental nihilism that animates the characters.
As I watched the performance my mind returned several times to a book review I read some months ago about Ludwig Wittgenstein. The character Ludwig shares many biographical similarities to the great philosopher. And so I was not surprised to see that the playwright is quoted in the program for this production saying that when he wrote the play his thoughts revolved around his friend Paul Wittgenstein’s uncle — Ludwig. Wittgenstein’s family’s story is an Austrian Jewish analog to the southern families in Faulkner’s novels. Self-made millionaires, the Wittgensteins appeared to be the face of successful, integrated Jewery in late 19th century Austria. They were the haute bourgeoisie’s poster family, an advertisement for meritocracy as aristocracy, so successful, in fact, that they converted to Catholicism and effaced their family’s ethnic history. They and their fictive counterparts in this play mythologically demonstrate the cognitive dissonance inflicted on humans who assert their innate superiority to others while secretly fearing that their success is merely the product of chance — or capitalism. The fact that Ludwig the philosopher is only capable of listening to Ludwig van Beethoven the composer — himself a self-made, “new” man and Viennese resident — is indicative of the centrifugal revolutionary forces that fuel the characters’ existential angst.
This production of “Ritter, Dene, Voss” is well done and well worth seeing. It’s the kind of theater that you will only see on the stage, and only for the briefest moment.
Ritter, Dene, Voss or When Your Family Is Too Close For Comfort
by Trish Vignola
La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in association with Toronto's One Little Goat Theatre Company presents the New York premiere of Ritter, Dene, Voss. Written by Austrian playwright, Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) and directed by One Little Goat's Artistic Director, Adam Seelig, Ritter, Dene, Voss explores the greatest threat to a family's existence - itself. Ritter, Dene, Voss runs from September 23 to October 10, 2010 in a limited engagement at the La Mama E.T.C.'s First Floor Theatre.
Ritter, Dene, Voss is a delicious Beckett-meets-Brechtian farce. Thomas Bernhard explores the themes of sexual repression and familial rivalry (a fun combo) with great resolve and humor. Ritter, Dene, Voss introduces us to two sisters, who are part-time actresses and full-time heiresses. They are charged with the societal reintegration of their tormented genius brother Ludwig, a part-time philosopher and full-time grandstander, who has returned from a mental health institute. The result? They swallow each other alive.
Genius is never attained and mama issues rear their ugly heads from every nook and cranny of the house. Camille Paglia would have a field day with Ludwig and his sisters. This is comic gold (as long as it's not happening to you, of course)!
Every once in a while, you get a reminder of why you're in this business. For me, that was Ritter, Dene, Voss. I have to admit that I had not been exposed to Thomas Bernhard until last night. Frankly, I found his work hilarious and occasionally hitting a bit close to home (I'm referring to his commentary on the artistic world, not the mama issues). There were enough actor and artists jokes to give solace to even my emptiest of bank accounts.
For a play based deeply in the genre of poetic theatre, I really found this play wonderfully approachable. I haven't enjoyed the text of a play like this in while. Although it was written in 1986, it was exciting to "discover" it last night.
The directing was spot on. Seelig kept it simple and let the text speak for itself. The set was uncomplicated, just a dining room table and chairs. There also wasn't one extraneous prop, sound or light cue. Everything fed the story and its characters. I have to give kudos to Seelig for assembling a great production team to make his vision come to fruition.
Finally, I would be remiss not mention the superb acting. I haven't been this engrossed by a performance in a while. Seelig did a great job of assembling this group of young Canadian actors. If you don't know them yet, you will soon. The cast (Shannon Perreault, Maev Beaty and Jordan Pettle) did a splendid job of basically digging into the text and just going for it. Simple Acting 101 at its finest!
Here's an interesting factoid. Apparently all of Bernhard's scripts are written without a single punctuation mark. It only has line-breaks to indicate cadence. In turn, this particular cast had to explore and interpret the text more than one would have to do with a more" traditional" script. Perreault, Beaty and Pettle met the challenge and then some.
You only have until the 10th to check out Ritter, Dene, Voss. I promise, you will go away laughing (even if you're also the broke artist lampooned in the play). For more information about Ritter, Dene, Voss or other La MaMa events, visit www.lamama.org. For more information about One Little Goat and their work in poetic theatre, please visit www.onelittlegoat.org.
by Chris Harcum
Toronto's One Little Goat Theatre Company brings an Austrian writer's family feud to kick off La MaMa's 49th season. Thomas Bernhard's three-hander was named after the play's original actors—Ilse Ritter, Kirsten Dene, and Gert Voss—whom the lauded novelist (Georg Buchner Prize) and playwright admired. Written in the mid-1980s, it was intended that this piece would be revisited by the same cast every other year for several decades. (This collaboration continued for the next 12 years.) Since Bernhard did not want publication or performances of his work to be done inside Austria's borders after his death in 1989, it is fitting that this Canadian company premieres this play in one of NYC's hotbeds of international theatre.
Beethoven piano concertos, an oriental rug, a dining table covered in a white tablecloth, a stack of faded newspapers, and abstract paintings transport the audience on arrival not only to 20th century Vienna but also something akin to Theatre of the Absurd time immemorial. The story takes place before, during, and after lunch one day when two sisters, who are actresses at their leisure and are named simply "older sister" and "younger sister," deal with the return of their philosopher brother, Ludwig, from the Salzburg sanatorium. Arguments, accusations, and character assassinations are lobbed over musings of the nature of theatre and the dynamics of dysfunctional families while giving nods to Bernhard's personal life (he was hospitalized for tuberculosis, trained as an actor, and was a friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein's nephew).
Adding to the controlled cacophony, are performances by skilled actors—Shannon Perreault, Maev Beaty, and Jordan Pettle—using a text that was written with no punctuation on the page. Adam Seelig, the show's director and the company's artistic director, finds the play's music, which often comes off as counterpoint exercises.
The dialogue turns and churns as the siblings face off with one another. The father died of tongue cancer and the younger sister finds the older sister to be like their mother. There is the feeling that volumes of the family's history left unspoken hang in the air like the paintings with faces cut out mounted on the walls. It is stated late in the first half of the show, "there is nothing more repellent than dying in one's parent's house." The push and pull of caring and revulsion amongst the trio rearranges the relationships and the living space.
While the performances are front and center in this production, Jackie Chau's thoughtful scenic and costume designs work nicely with Rosie Cruz's nuanced lighting design and the uncredited but effective sound design to create an atmosphere that stands on its own.
Some may find this look into the lives of the moneyed class a bit out of touch with the current state of the economy. On the other hand, they might laugh at the problems generated by those with more time on their hands than is useful. Or, it simply could be a coincidence that this show is here at a time when some Canadians politely laugh at but also are afraid of the crumbling of America's financial system.
While Ludwig rails against nurturing developing talent by saying, "Help a young artist and you destroy and annihilate him," I am glad La MaMa has brought this young company to New York. My hope is that Seelig creates something else that follows in the footsteps of Thomas Bernhard by developing a work personally suited to Perreault, Beaty, and Pettle's particular talents.