This article was originally published in the Japan Times newspaper on Nov 13 2013.
The term “metatheater” refers to devices in a play that break the so-called “fourth wall” — the illusion of theatrical reality — in order to involve the audience as critical participants in the production. Metatheatricality is a hallmark of early 20th-century Modernist drama, and is often associated with the work of German playwright Bertolt Brecht.
An example of Brecht’s metatheater can be seen right now at Underthrow in Kyoto’s northeastern Kita-Shirakawa district — since July the intimate 30-seat underground home of the Chiten theater company, where once others grooved when it was a famous music spot called CBGB.
Its director, 40-year-old Motoi Miura, founded Chiten in 2003 in Tokyo, but since moving the company to Kyoto two years later it has been getting attention for its radical linguistic treatment of classic plays; breaking the texts into fragments and experimenting with vocal inflections and rhythms that challenge the very foundation of meaning in discourse.
The company’s current offering at Underthrow is “Fatzer,” a production that marks its first foray into the work of the German playwright, theater director and poet, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956). It’s also a play that fits both the venue and the company’s performance style.
“The Downfall of the Egotist Johann Fatzer,” the so-called “Fatzer Fragment,” is an unfinished play found subsumed in a 500-page document drafted by the famed Marxist artist between 1926 and 1930.
The work — which consists of dramatic scenes, choral sections, commentaries and critical notes — is an early example of Brecht’s Lehrstücke (learning-plays). One of the central ideas of this form was to remove the traditional actor-audience divide. Hence participants become collective readers of play texts that function as documents open to participant commentary and criticism in relation to concerns of the here and now.
Chiten’s “Fatzer,” however, is based on a 1978 text by the great German dramatist and director, Heiner Müller (1929-95), who compiled it for a production at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg. Müller saw the “Fatzer Fragment” as a well of poetic beauty and textual potential — even referring to it as the “text of the century.” Despite his enthusiasm, the play has rarely been staged in German or English, and prior to this version by Chiten — for which Masayuki Tsuzaki was commissioned to translate Müller’s text — there are no productions on record in Japan.
“Fatzer,” which Chiten approach as a Shaustück (showpiece), rather than as a Lehrstück, is a play about Johann Fatzer, a German soldier in World War I who convinces three comrades named Koch, Kaumann and Büsching to flee the horror of the front-line trenches and go into hiding in a derelict industrial area to wait for a revolution that never happens.
As the terror of the trenches recedes, however, the terror of hunger starts to set in. Fatzer forages for food, but on occasion fails to provide for his comrades. This, and his seduction of Kaumann’s wife, Therese, turns the group against him. They see Fatzer’s individualistic behavior as a risk to their survival and decide to take his life.
This absurd journey from one trench to another both real and metaphorical in the derelict zone fits the tiny subterranean space in Kyoto surprisingly well. A simple black stage butts onto a gray wall and is lit by a mesh of bare light bulbs. Chiten’s six-member cast share the lines and jump quickly from one character to another. This “compositional” approach, which is a fundamental part of Chiten’s dramaturgical style, lends itself well to the fragmented structure of “Fatzer.”
From the outset, the production highlights the inherent metatheatricality of the play. Just below the stage is a small opening that gives the audience a glimpse behind the scenes. Then, as the production starts, an actress issues a rallying call, crying out: “A big round of applause for Johann Fatzer / A bigger round of applause for the fall of the egotist Johann Fatzer.”
Live music plays a key role, too, thanks to avant-garde rock three-piece Kukangendai (Modern Space), who are continually present on stage and create a caustic atmosphere through sampling, repetition and intentional mistakes. The drummer’s short, sharp bursts of percussion also punctuate the actors’ lines, and pierce the air like gunshots.
Meanwhile, the actors’ bodies seem stuck to the gray wall, symbolically chained up as prisoners of war. The combination of discordant music, frustrating movements and textual fragmentation produces a feeling of existential anxiety and a sense of “no exit” from a nightmare.
According to the director, Miura, the relationship between sex and war is a key theme that Müller emphasized in his version of the play. The soldiers are not only deprived of food, but also sex. This also applies to Kaumann’s wife, who has not seen her husband in three years and says repeatedly, “Today, definitely today, I have to satisfy my body.”
In the final scene, the actors die in a trench on the industrial site. Their bodies tremble and shake as though they’ve been shot.
Then, in a similar way to the start of the play, the same actress again raises her voice to cry out to the audience: “A big round of applause for us and for Kukangendai.”
Chiten’s “Fatzer” is a provocative and challenging test for the audience. Its dark tone and metatheatrical conceits bring the Brechtian “distancing” effect (aka “alienation” or “estrangement” effect) to life, hindering the audience — as intended — from being able to simply and unconsciously identify with its characters.
So, not only is this a chance to see a play that is rarely performed, but it’s also an opportunity to celebrate the arrival of a new experimental performance venue in the Kansai region.
Cover photo: Chiten actors in a scene from “Fatzer” at Underthrow Kyoto. Photo by Hisaki Matsumoto.