Jealousy, Infidelity, Murder, Lies: It’s All on Vienna’s Stages

Jealousy, Infidelity, Murder, Lies: It’s All on Vienna’s Stages

Unlike the film, the commandments are presented out of order, often prompting the viewer to consult the playbill to figure out where we are in the cycle. Like the film, however, “Die Zehn Gebote” often leaves the viewer to meditate on the relationship between the kitchen-sink realism of the individual tales and the biblical injunctions to which they are joined, however obliquely.

“Die Zehn Gebote” is a true ensemble piece and the actors are excitingly matched. Lukas Holzhausen is both tender and weary as a single parent whose teenage daughter suspects he is not her biological father. Anja Herden gets to survey a wide dramatic range, from a matriarch who must plead for her grandchild’s return to the cynical, promiscuous neighbor in the most famous episode of “The Decalogue.” As both a lawyer against capital punishment and a committed doctor who is forced to play God, Gabor Biedermann demonstrates how a practiced, professional demeanor cracks up in the face of moral uncertainty and outrage.


The all-female cast of “Die Orestie,” directed by Antú Romero Nunes at the Burgtheater.

Reinhard Werner/Burgtheater

One of Kieslowski’s most admired traits as a filmmaker was his ability to translate his philosophical and dramatic ideas into stark images. In putting “The Decalogue” on stage, one has to find equivalents for visual storytelling. Mr. Kimmig, a prolific German director, resists the urge to use video, concentrating the entire drama in the raw performances of the actors. Instead, he finds cinematic texture by fiddling with narrative structure.

Kieslowski’s film is centered on a large social housing project. Over the long course of the series, there are many chance encounters: We gain new perspectives on stories we have already seen. In Mr. Kimmig’s version, the characters from various episodes intrude on each other. Sometimes they take a seat downstage and spectate. At others, they interrupt to introduce a new tale. Each segment builds to a moment of ethical crisis, and so these narrative breaks, which become increasingly frenzied after the intermission, succeed in sustaining tension over the course of the whole performance. After the emotionally frantic, “Short Cuts”-like crisscrossing of the final half-hour, the energetic curtain call, with its numerous costume changes (to remind the audience who played whom) felt cathartic in itself.

The ethical conundrums of a building full of Poles would probably seem like small fry to those of the House of Atreus, whose famous family curse is being revisited next door in the Burgtheater’s powerful all-female production of “Die Orestie” (“The Oresteia”). Using a much-whittled-down version of Peter Stein’s German prose translation (that version ran to nine and a half hours during its original performances at the Berlin Schaubühne in 1980), Antú Romero Nunes has brought his stripped-down, savage aesthetic to Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy. Over 140 intermission-less minutes, seven of the Burgtheater’s powerful actresses transform the broad stage of Vienna’s most elegant dramatic theater into a claustrophobic pressure cooker.

The staging by Mr. Nunes, a young and in-demand German director (next month, he will direct the Bavarian State Opera’s premiere of Verdi’s “Les Vêpres Siciliennes”), suggests that the story is being told from the point of view of the Furies, the goddesses who mete out divine justice in the pre-legal world of Greek myth. The trilogy’s final chapter, “The Eumenides,” can, in fact, be read as a parable for the establishment of the Athenian judicial system.

By assigning all the roles to a handful of actors, Mr. Nunes also highlights how the cycle of familial violence affects everyone — protagonists, chorus, gods and Furies. For the spectator as well, it is impossible to remain neutral or indifferent to the vicissitudes of this 2,500-year-old tragedy.

With soiled white garments, black boots and ratty blonde locks, their faces caked in white paint, the actresses look like a chorus of the undead. Save for the ambient music, the occasional fog and the black blood that comes streaming downstage at one point, these women are themselves the production, from Andrea Wenzl’s pained, defenseless Cassandra to Aenne Schwarz’s violent and conflicted Orestes. (Ms. Schwarz is also sensational in the Burgtheater’s “Antigone,” which makes an excellent companion piece for this “Oresteia.”)

Maria Happel and Barbara Petritsch are boldly cast as Agamemnon, who sacrifices his daughter to secure favorable winds for the Greek fleet sailing to Troy, and Aegisthus, who plots the king’s downfall. Two longtime members of the Burgtheater’s ensemble, they more than hold their own against the production’s younger actresses, matching them in dramatic and even physical intensity.

Perhaps best of all is Caroline Peters’s nuanced Clytemnestra. Her performance is shot through with pride, grief and cunning, never more so than in her unsettlingly tender scene with Orestes, the long-exiled son who has returned to murder her. That love, suffering, fear and the desire for revenge can coexist inside one breast is something that perceptive artists of subtle moral imagination have always been able to comprehend.

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