Fassbinder's melodrama of love, desire and fashion comes to the Old Fitz stage with a killer cast of femmes fatale
Immortalised in the 1972 film, Rainer Werner Fassbinder‘s melodrama The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant started its life on stage. Within the melodrama genre, you expect to see a character wail and weep majestically; someone might throw a glass or plate and let it fall, dramatically, to pieces; there might be a thrilling love connection – and/or there might be a cruel fight. In Shane Bosher’s production of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, you get them all. At once.
This production revels in the beauty of its all-women cast (much of the action happens in front of an oversized mirror) and the fallout of their tumultuous relationships. But it doesn’t do the psychological legwork needed to elevate the ‘spurned-love’ story into a more compelling comment on human relationships and the manipulation, exploitation, and negotiation they involve.
Petra (Sara Wiseman) is a typical product of the melodrama genre. She’s shallow and driven by base desires; when her friend Sidonie (Eloise Snape) cautions her to live a life of compromise and honesty, she literally waves the idea aside to apply makeup. Petra wants beauty and passion. Divorced from her brutish second husband, she lives with Marlene (a stoic Matilda Ridgway), her silent attendant with whom she likely has some kind of psychosexual bond (though when this is explored in an early scene, it’s played for laughs).
Petra’s world shifts when she meets Karin (Taylor Ferguson): she’s young and beautiful, and Petra is instantly, shatteringly in love. She offers to help Karin make it as a model, but implies that it’s conditional on Karin moving into her apartment. After an uncomfortable cat-and-mouse sequence that feels like sexual harassment, Karin relents and she and Petra fall into bed together. What follows is a descent into obsession that is met with rejection.
If there is supposed to be a struggle for power or control between Petra and Karin, or Petra and Marlene, or any combination of women, it gets lost somewhere along the way. This story about women is filtered thoroughly through the male gaze (of writer, translator and director) and emerges as superficial. Bosher’s choices undermine feminine sexual attraction: Karin doesn’t seem aware of the sexual game she’s playing with Petra until the very last minute, which makes her later turn into the powerful partner withholding affection harder to believe; and Petra and Karin’s love scene is reduced to a series of tableaux that shift with a lighting flash and camera shutter sound effect: all artifice, no genuine sexual currency allowed. This lighting motif (by Alex Berlage) continues throughout the play.
Still: on this superficial level, there’s some enjoyment to be had – especially in the latter half of the play, as it eschews any attempt at sustained storytelling. The piece climaxes in Petra’s disastrous birthday party, a small and dismal affair. The drunk Petra waits in vain for Karin to call, as her mother Valerie (Judith Gibson), daughter Gabrielle (Mia Rorris, in a wonderfully charismatic turn), Sidonie and Marlene try to reckon with their host’s rock-bottom. Wiseman is encouraged to chew every inch of scenery and does so spectacularly: shouting, crying, pleading, throwing glasses of gin at no one and everyone.
The party represents the true heart of this product: the daytime television of the German avant-garde, a soap opera without teeth. Did this production, of a play that isn’t rigorously constructed to begin with, need to double-down on the superficiality?
It’s hard not to wish for a little more complexity and depth in the portrayal of these women. And it’s hard not to wonder whether that, coupled with an injection of genuine emotional intensity, might have made the melodrama more effective.