The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
Common Ground Theatre
Through May 19
The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern (always delightful in its difference from all the little pink pigs) is following up last year's Russian season with a German season, which opened May 3 at Common Ground Theatre of Durham, with a production of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1972 play.
Adapted and directed by versatile theater artist Katja Hill, the play showcases the considerable talents of six area actresses, including Hill herself. Their work is bolstered by excellent set, sound and costume design—one costumer per character, as befits a play centered on a fashion designer, symbol of all that is seductive and transient.
Fassbinder's play is a sad and savage meditation on love and personal freedom—or lack thereof—and the unhappy (inevitable?) brews that result in their names when selfishness, cynicism, lust and the desire for power become their body doubles. It is a beautifully constructed play: If it were a sculpture, it would comprise six spinning balls arrayed in interlocking triangles. Each ball, or character, rotates so that we may witness the pure and the impure in each, going and coming around in the way of all karma. Petra von Kant, played here by the powerful and fearless Rachel Klem, is a middle-aged-and-fighting-it fashion designer whose success has come at a high price, and whose unsatisfactory relationship with her mother (Lenore Field, subtle and effective) she is busy replicating with her own daughter (Meredith Sause, amazingly believable as a schoolgirl). Until an old friend, Sidonie (Leigh Lester Holmes: marvelous, dahling) shows up, allowing us a glimpse into Petra's past and introducing a devastating future, Petra's primary relationship is with them and her dedicated assistant, Marlene (Katja Hill), whom she treats abysmally. With the introduction of Karin, a new triangle forms with enough sharp edges to cut everyone but Karin, who is the arrowhead at its leading point.
Karin Thimm—Miss Devastation—shows up in a gold sequin dress and cowgirl boots, chewing gum. Buffed to a meretricious glitter by Gigi DeLizza, she's a little gold-digger, and narcissistic Petra falls for her like she falls for her own mirror image each morning. DeLizza plays Karin a trifle too hard-shelled, evoking too much pity for Petra—who, of course, is just like her only more sophisticated—but it is she who successfully time-travels the story from the now of 1972 to the now of 2007. This white girl can do a quite nasty rap.
Hill has not only adapted certain elements of the script for purposes of modernization, she has cut some of the long talky parts in favor of action and sharp humor. Generally, the story flows well, but the lack of certain background and Hill's directorial style force an overplaying, an untempered emotionality, that at times is overscaled in such an intimate theater setting. Klem, in particular, although thrilling in her passions, seemed to be playing to the back of a large house, rather than to the audience not 10 feet away. We would be drawn in more effectively to the story if the characters were not launching themselves at us quite so emphatically.
The only character who was never overplayed was Hill's own Marlene—who does not speak a word. It is a fantastic part, requiring great skill and subtle expression, and Hill excels in it, almost stealing her own show. The final scene, in which the wordless Marlene makes a great change, is a jaw-dropper, even if you know the story. If you are interested in either love or theater, this is a play you will want to see.
Editor's Note: In the interest of full disclosure, Indy Arts & Entertainment Editor David Fellerath was the set designer for this show. He did not edit this review.