Revisiting Fassbinder, This Time on Stage
"In a Year with 13 Moons" began life as a film 25 years ago, one of the many that out director Rainer Werner Fassbinder made during his brief life. (Fassbinder made some 40 feature length films before dying at the age of 37.)
According to Fassbinder’s text, the title refers to the "dangerous constellation" when "a moon year and a year with 13 new moons coincide...leading to inescapable personal catastrophes."
The film grew out Fassbinder’s own personal catastrophe: the suicide of his lover Armin Meier. It tells the story of Erwin, who, when chastised by his married lover ("too bad you’re not a girl," he’s told), travels to Casablanca for a sex change operation. Returning to Germany as Elvira, she is brutalized and then rejected by the same lover. Elvira then wanders abandoned and alone and attempts to stitch together the unraveled threads of her life.
This week it comes to the stage at the Yale Repertory Theatre where the creative team of director Robert Woodruff and actor Bill Camp adapted it for the stage. It features a cast of twelve and will run through May 18.
"Fassbinder structured the film with such fabulously rich characters and set it into motion with ferocity that it works on a number of different levels," said Bill Camp, who stars as Elvira. "It is a richly layered work that explores a host of issues that were being explored in post-World War II Germany when Fassbinder was making the film."
One of those issues was the detritus left by the Nazis who unleashed a twisted and murderous belief that they could create an Aryan race. Fassbinder makes reference to this dark chapter of human history and uses it as the source of the physical and psychic violence that flares up throughout his work.
Fassbinder’s film opened with a scene depicting men cruising for sex from male prostitutes in a public park alongside the Main River in Frankfurt. That same scene begins Camp’s and Woodruff’s adaptation. Elvira enters the park and gestures with her head, beckoning a john to approach. They embrace. But what first unfolds as a tryst quickly becomes an assault: the john, who believes Elvira to be a man, is repulsed when he discovers her altered sexual identity. A trio of male prostitutes emerges from the thickets and commences to pummel her, tearing at her clothes. This scene sets the tone for all that follows as Elvira takes us on her journey of self discovery.
A great challenge
Camp and Robert Woodruff have collaborated for several years, dating to the time when they worked together at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. More recently they joined forces at Yale Rep in an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s "Notes from the Underground." When that production traveled to New York three years ago, it was lauded by New York Times critic Ben Brantley who proclaimed Camp to be "one of the bravest, smartest and most physically intense actors in New York."
"For me, acting in this role," Camp said, "is very exciting. It’s a great challenge. It’s an unbelievable story, told through little episodes. It’s been a joy for us to tackle. From the first scene in the park to the last scene, the audience is exposed to moments of a life, made crystal clear."
For Woodruff, the Fassbinder script "is written by a great artist and philosopher and it tells a great story," he said. "There is always a risk when you come upon a piece, in this case a film, and translate that into another medium, but with this play, you get to use all the crayons in your box. It’s been a thrill to work on this with Bill who has tackled it, and with a creative team who sees the seriousness of its purpose, and delivers it with passion."
It brought back memories, Woodruff said, when he directed "In the Jungle of Cities" by another German writer, Bertolt Brecht, at the American Repertory Theater in 1998. Woodruff followed Robert Brustein as the artistic director of the Cambridge company in 2002, which he ran until 2007.
"When you come to any piece," Woodruff said, "some are by their very nature generous and welcoming, and some are not. For me, the great surprise is that the Fassbinder script was very generous. It opened up its world in a similar way that Brecht’s play did, with a similar scope."
Stations of the Cross
Camp said he has tremendous faith in Woodruff’s ability to take on the challenge and to ready the play - with all its inherent demands of acting and stage craft - for Yale Rep’s audiences.
"Robert has never shied away from tackling difficult works," Camp said. "And I trust him to take us on this journey."
Woodruff refers to that journey as "similar to the Stations of the Cross," he said. "It’s a journey of a life, and it is very personal. But Fassbinder also wanted to make us see that what happens to Elvira also happens to the culture she lives in. It’s about the personal and cultural aspects of her life that makes this play compelling."
When asked if "In a Year with 13 Moons," like their previous Yale Rep collaboration, "Notes from the Underground," is expected to travel to New York, Woodruff said that it’s too early to speculate.
"Kudos has to be given to James Bundy, [Yale Rep’s artistic director], for being willing to stage this project," Woodruff said. "He has created a home for this type of theatre. Where we go from here, well, it’s a bit premature to discuss. It takes a lot of chutzpah to stage this work."
"In a Year with 13 Moons," by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, adapted for the stage by Robert Woodruff and Bill Camp, directed by Robert Woodruff, is at Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven, Connecticut, from Apr. 26-May 18. For ticket information visit their website http://www.yalerep.org/on_stage/2012-13/13moons.html/