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Bitter Humour & Bitter Truth

August: Osage County
by Tracy Letts
directed by Oliver Reese
Berliner Ensemble

Drugs, alcohol, and deceit.  These are the Weston Family’s tools of choice to numb against the many painful truths that surround them. The sudden disappearance of the family patriarch, Beverly Weston, forces an unavoidable gathering and the cross-generational conflict that ensues. The scattered family can hardly come together before jealousy, greed, dishonesty and simple pigheadedness begin tearing it apart. Tracy Letts’ well-known work August: Osage County premiers at the Berliner Ensemble under the title Eine Familie (A Famliy).


One year after its debut performance at Steppenwolf Theatre in 2007, August: Osage County earned Tracy Letts the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The original Broadway production of the play received five Tony Awards including Best Play. Several years later in 2013 a star-studded film adaptation was nominated for two Academy Awards. There is no denying that Letts’ acclaimed dramatic text is the relentless drivetrain of this arresting performance. Skillfully translated by Anna Opel little of Letts’ bitter humor and biting accuracy are lost to German audiences.


The Berliner Ensemble’s new Artistic Director, Oliver Reese, brings Letts’ tragicomic, American family drama to Berlin, a production he directed and previously seen in Frankfurt. Behind the raked stage designed by Hansjörg Hartung a 5-man band in Western-Outfits plays blues and country music. Above them videos of lonely American backroads and dusty Oklahoman landscapes are projected. This backdrop of cliché Americana provides structure to the lengthy performance. Though the vocal performance of music provided by Jörg Gollasch remains utterly lackluster it hardly detracts from the brilliant performances of the ensemble, especially those of of Corinna Kirchhoff as Violet Weston and Constanze Becker as her daughter Barbara. Together they transform the almost four hour long ensemble piece into an enthralling duel of will and biting spite.

With morbid curiosity we delight at Letts’ bitter humor and stand witness to the swan’s song of the dying Westons. Playing in Berlin the subtext of this family as a warped reflection of America itself may very well be more prevalent than in past productions. In light of current and past politics it is easy to understand why many Germans would find the view of America as a society blind to the truth quite alarming. Certainly the spectacular death throws of the Westons have more likeness to a nightmare than to the idea of the American dream. This context however is subtly laid over the production like a translucent veil and seen through this lens everything takes a different light. This subtlety, dark humor and truthfulness make it difficult not to compare Letts’ work, as sculpted by the capable hands of the Berliner Ensemble, to the tragicomic classics of Ibsen or Chekhov. 


Michael Veale

photos | ©Birgit Hupfeld

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