Volume 80, Number 7 | September 23 - 29, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Written by Thomas Bernhard
Translated from the German by Peter Jansen and Kenneth Northcott
Directed by Adam Seelig
A One Little Goat production
Through October 10
Running Time: 2 hours (including intermission)
At La MaMa E.T.C.
74A E. 4th St. (btw. 2nd Ave. & Bowery)
For tickets ($18, $13 for students/seniors), call 212-475-7710
Visit www.LaMaMa.org and www.OneLittleGoat.org

Family drama concealed by ‘wrappings within wrappings’
One Little Goat’s ‘poetic-obsessive’ production leaves audiences lost & found

Photo by Lauren Stryer

RDV’s got some serious sibling rivalry.


Ludwig, the genius philosopher brother the Schopenhauer expert, has spent twenty years in and out of the Steinhof sanitarium — mostly in — somewhere in the Austrian Alps. Now he is back home in Vienna with his two sisters, perhaps for good, bullying the life out of them as they compete for his affections without even knowing they are doing it.

This is the premise of an extraordinary play with an extraordinary title, “Ritter, Dene, Voss,” in its New York premiere September 23-October 10 at –of course — Ellen Stewart’s forever adventurous La MaMa E.T.C. (Experimental Theater Company) in the heart if the East Village.

Ritter, Dene, and Voss are not the names of the three characters. Indeed the

only character given a name in this work is big bad brother Ludwig (which has something to do with a certain von Beethoven whom he and playwright Thomas Bernhard admire).

Ritter, Dene, Voss — or Ilse Ritter, Kirsten Dene (pronounced Denna), and Gert Voss — were the actual names of the three actors who fleshed out those roles when “Ritter, Dene, Voss” had its first-ever performance at Austria’s Salzburg Festival on August 18, 1986.

Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), Austria’s foremost novelist/playwright in most of those years, had already named one drama, “Minetta,” after its actor. Bernhard appreciated actors.

So does Adam Seelig, the 35-year-old Canadian-born-and-bred founder of the One Little Goat Theatre Company as well as director of the Toronto (2006), Chicago (2007) — and now this La MaMa strangely poetic-obsessive production. Seelig’s actors are Shannon Perrault (Dene), Maev Beaty (Ritter) and Jordan Pettle (Ludwig) — three of Canada’s best, he feels.

“I knew Bernhard’s novels before I knew his plays,” Seelig said last week by phone during a rehearsal break in Toronto. “This play begins with two women on stage, talking. His novels are almost entirely masculine. He even makes the ranting style very pleasant. And the novels are all one long unbroken sentence — Like Kerouac’s “On the Road”?


But not quite. Truman Capote once famously said, of Kerouac’s opus: “That’s not writing, that’s typing and this struggling reader couldn’t agree more. But that same reader found “Ritter, Dene Voss” so strangely compelling that somewhere on the margin of the script he scribbled the following extraordinary words: “I am all the people in this play even though I never had a sister, much less two.”

Indeed, under the hypnotic spell of “Ritter, Dene, Voss” one felt plunged back into the hermetically sealed claustrophobic eggshells of such great predecessors as Jean Cocteau’s “Les Enfants Terribles” (a brother, a sister, a bedroom), Jean Genet’s “The Maids” (two sisters in a reeking kitchen), and, of course, Hans Castorp’s Alpine sanitarium in Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain.”

And then, when I got to Big Brother Ludwig’s caustic advice to sister Dene: “Beware of the weak…for they are in fact the strong,” I suddenly heard my own mother’s  lifelong mantra: “In this world, my darling, the sheep eat the wolves…” And then when hit in the eye by not one but two references to vacations at Sils Maria — the tiny Swiss resort where that same mother more than once had hid away for a summer with her two small boys — well, I was sunk.

Not everybody can have memories of a young mother hunting for edelweiss with her 8-year-old kid in the Sils-Maria of a distant sunlit summer, but any lover of the written word will relish, for instance, Ludwig’s long vivid poetic analogy-cum-diatribe against the printed words of Schopenhauer, Kant & Co.
We enter books
as we enter taverns
hungry thirsty…
starving my child
At first we are received with kindness
are waited on
but are waited on worse and worse
waited on worse and still worse
and finally kicked out…

We enter those philosophies
as we do open taverns
and sit down at once at the regular table
and we are surprised
that we are not waited on at once
to our most complete satisfaction
We are thoroughly annoyed
not least by the odious people
who are throwing their weight around with us in this tavern
We call for the landlord
but the landlord doesn’t come
and even if at first
we were possibly enthusiastic
delighted possibly with the décor of the tavern
we start to loathe it after a very short time
we are badly seated
there’s a draft
a noisome smell hangs in the air
instead of the most delicate aroma of roasting meat which we had expected
we are served by small odious waiters
who have learned nothing
and who spend their time running around in their dull-witted way
and then finally bring everything to the table
except the things
that we have ordered
Translation is a notoriously imperfect art, but Adam Seelig feels that this German-into-English rendition by Peter Jansen and Kenneth Northcott (two professors emeritus of the University of Chicago) is as good as it gets.

“They did this, shall we say, in parallel. Each word carries such weight, yet it does not sound like a translation.”

 Layers within layers. Ritter and Dene, or the characters played by the actors playing Ritter and Dene (see above), are themselves actresses, or part-time actresses at the local Jungstadt whenever they feel like it, since their uncle is a benefactor of that theater, which he also manages.

 Ritter, five years younger than Dene, is also the more interested of the sisters — more interested in acting, more interested in men. Whether they know it or not, the two women also vie kitchenwise and otherwise for, as noted, the attentions of the man in the house. Ludwig loves cream puffs- loves and loathes them, to be sure. Very well, then, Dene will bake up some cream puffs, Ritter will serve them, till the damn things are coming out of his ears. 

Does incest stand waiting in the wings? You may be sure of that too. But it is all concealed in, as I say, wrappings within wrappings. “We were conceived by Henry James” — the ultimate master of periphrasis — declares impatient Ritter in one of the play’s nicest touches.

 Adam Seelig is right. There’s no rhymed couplets here, no iambic pentameter, but it is all a highway of poetry of its own — “a text,” says Seelig, “that can be treated as a musical score.”

Listen to the music and get lost, get found.

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