Through the Leaves at the side project: Theater review

F.X. Kroetz's tense two-hander is sharply observed but perhaps too restrained in the side project's staging.

1/3
Photograph: Scott Dray

Through the Leaves at the side project

2/3
Photograph: Scott Dray

Through the Leaves at the side project

3/3
Photograph: Scott Dray

Through the Leaves at the side project

German playwright F.X. Kroetz seems like just the right choice for the side project theatre company. Kroetz is famous for his hyper-realism, taking the form to a raw, heightened and poetic extreme—perfect for a company that emphasizes intimacy in its productions. Seemingly mundane details—the experience of eating caviar, the churning of a meat grinder—become almost magical translated to the stage, as if seen under a microscope. In this way Through the Leaves studies the relationship of Martha (Laurie Larson), a butcher, and her "man" Otto (H.B. Ward), a laborer and irredeemable brute who wastes no opportunity to cut her down. 

Kroetz's dialogue, capturing the rhythm of Iron Curtain–era working-class Germany, is terse, but packed. There is a deep symbolic undercurrent to every action, as well as a streak of Pinteresque menace. Otto's actions are channelled through the basest of human desires: food, sleep and sex. He complains that Martha's pride in her butchery (called, in a nod to Martha's position, "Fleisch Haus") takes attention away from him and her "unfeminine" traits threaten his own self-worth. His contempt for Martha's dog, whose barking marks the only direct offensive against him, manifests in violence and sexual jealousy. His most touching side only emerges with tokens of obedience. 

Martha, meanwhile, romanticizes Otto, as we see in the private journal entries she delivers in soliloquy, punctuation pronounced to further distinguish it from the harsh reality we witness voyeuristically in their moments together. But Martha and Otto are also an illustration of wider oppression of the working class, their personal power struggles linked to their relationship with their work and their social and political systems, with a similar tolerance of their abuses. Its grounding in an intimate portrayal of domestic terror makes these connections all the more relatable and tragic. 

Larson's Martha grips tightly to an inner sense of dignity as her reception of Otto's increasingly repulsive behavior turns from humoring to pacifying to small moments of defiance. Ward's Otto is at times unsettling and at others pathetically oafish. He lets the vulnerablity that drives Otto's need for power shine through, adding some nuance. Andy Hager's direction balances tension and release, the moments of seeming calm barely masking the threat of Otto's cruelty. Still, it often feels too measured, sacrificing the possibility of violent extremes for subtlety. There are many strong moments, but when it becomes apparent that Kroetz's play deepens more than it pushes forward, the time between those peak moments of tension can run together. By the end of its brisk 70 minutes, I got the sense there was still more that could be mined from Kroetz's bleak world. 

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