Blackout. Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem can be heard slowly building to its climax as the theater fills with fog. At the pinnacle of suspense, the classical music subsides and is replaced by the stillness of a summer night; crickets, an occasional crow cawing in the distance, and above all an almost unbearable calm. As the four-man ensemble comes into view their ennui and utter boredom is tangibly evident. These are the indicative first moments of Ersan Mondtag and Olga Bach’s The Extermination.
A faux garden of paradise, antique sculptures, a pond and swing and Mondtags’ fantastical dream of the end of days; this is the world in which the production takes place. The four tenants of Eden, spurred on by boredom, strive to find meaning through a hedonistic display of drugs, sex and paranoia. More than anything, The Extermination is a visually stunning world of surreal tableaus and staged spectacle. Produced at the Konzert Theater Bern it is the last of ten select works, chosen from this past year’s season, to be performed at the 54th Theatertreffen at the Berliner Festspiele.
Mondtag has made a name for himself with the optical opulence of his pieces and returns for the second year in a row to Theatertreffen. Many see in the 30 year old director from Berlin an emerging star. It is no secret that he has set his gaze on succeeding Thomas Ostermeier at the Schaubühne and his pieces certainly are very polarising. The Extermination is no exception. Quite a number of ‘boos’ could be heard mixed in with the applause during curtain call.
Nearly every aspect of the heavily stylised production has been shaped so as to increase the potential for visually striking tableaus and onstage compositions. Each cast member is naked but for a fitted body suit, which casts him or her in the image of a painted statue. The cast’s movement is repetitive and mechanical and more often than not, they stand around in dramatic poses as if painted in place. Unfortunately, the action onstage frequently has only an aesthetic connection to what is being said and the occasionally symbolic juxtaposition of word and act reads as forced.
The problematic relationship between directed action and written text is indicative of a larger dichotomy that exists between director and playwright. Heaven turns to hell as Bach’s text presents a condemning and increasingly aggressive thesis on the narcissism of our society. This thesis, however, seems to completely exhaust itself long before the piece reaches its climax in a living vignette of deafening techno. From the perspective of this humble theatergoer this implies either the unwillingness of Mondtag to unify his goal of creating moving, timeless tableaus with Bach’s goals of social criticism or simply his inability to do so.