The production now opening at the Colorado Actors' Theater was written by a German playwright known for his tough subject matter and for pushing the limits of what's considered normal on stage. But in many ways, The Nest, penned by Franz Xaver Kroetz in the 1970s, could well be an American work, set in the Midwest with Jack and Diane in the starring rolls.
It's still a tough play that pushes the limits of the stage, but the narrative that weaves this "nest" is eerily apropos for turn-of-the-millennium middle America. Conjured during a time of economic recession, high energy prices and concern about the environment, The Nest revolves around a cash-strapped working-class couple worriedly preparing for the arrival of their first child.
In the midst of all this economic uncertainly, husband Kurt is asked by his boss to dump some fluids, ostensibly rancid wine, into a nearby lake for a little money on the side. The fluids turn out to be toxic waste, and that's when the trouble really begins.
"He's the boss's favorite guy," actor David Millbern says of Kurt, the role he's taken on. "He needs the money. He knows how much that would mean for his wife."
"And there is serious pressure on him at home," adds Gillian Marloth, who plays the wife, Martha. "I put serious pressure on him."
And therein lies our drama. A likeable, unthinking hero does something stupid and then faces slings and arrows as he confronts his actions, then tries to set things right. "It hits him; he's been a yes-man all his life," Millbern says. "And he thinks, 'What's that about? Am I going to be a yes-man all my life?'" The audience witnesses a transformation in Kurt from mindless conformist to critical thinker.
Sounds like a pretty American drama, made for the likes of Marlon Brando or Jimmy Stewart, except that The Nest was written only a few years after Kroetz joined the Communist Party in Germany (he has since left the party) and the play follows a certain theme in Kroetz's work of the little guy up against big challenges, the judgement of society, or big bosses.
Despite the play's resonance with the individualistic U.S. of A., the play is rarely produced in this country. True to the form of past occupants of the Smokebrush space, CAT is producing work here that folks like Millbern and Marloth -- both accomplished professional actors working out of Los Angeles -- would never otherwise get to play. "So rarely do you get material like this to work with," says Millbern.
Productions of Kroetz are rare here, in part because few Americans (theater directors and audiences alike, it seems) know who the heck he is and in part because those who do, know that it's pretty challenging stuff. Kroetz's obscurity is aided by the fact that the playwright himself is apparently quite picky about how and where his plays are produced.
Born in 1946, in Bavaria, Kroetz emerged in the 1960s as one of Germany's most important playwrights, scripting drama for national radio, television and stage productions. Influenced by everyone from Brecht to Beckett, Kroetz matured his craft by looking to his native roots for inspiration.
Many of his works are influenced by the Volksstck, or folk plays, of the Bavarian working-class communities in which he grew up. Known for their colloquial language and lower middle-class settings, the dialogue of folk plays is often blunt and without pretention, an attribute mirrored in Kroetz's work.
But Kroetz went well beyond the Volksstck tradition to craft a new kind of play that would dig even deeper into human reality and emotion by relying less on dialogue and more on the unspoken subtext, tension and attraction between his characters.
"The most important action of my characters is their silence," Kroetz is often quoted as saying. "Their problems lie so far back and are so advanced that they are no longer able to express them in words."
The Nest is no exception. "There is one section in this play that goes on for roughly 14 to 15 minutes with no dialogue," says director Gregory Wagrowski, also CAT's artistic director. "In any play, more than 10 seconds is a long time without dialogue. So it's very interesting."
Don't think, however, that this leads to a dry, abstract stage play. On the contrary, say the playwright's fans, Kroetz' approach leads to a more gripping sense of reality, a bit like watching the real-life characters on modern-day "reality shows."
While traditional stage acting and play writing condenses action, hyperbolizes emotion and glorifies wordplay, Kroetz's work flips that on its head.
"There's a point in the play where my wife lists everything we need for the upcoming baby shower," say Millbern.
"It's five or six pages of just a list," Wagrowski interjects.
"It's the longest scene in the play, and it's all the costs and minutia of [the shower]," adds Marloth.
"And they add it up in real time," says Millbern. "Now that may seem banal but it's almost like the audience is peeking in on a real-life couple, and it's fascinating. And when you're not talking it's more filled with emotion than when you are saying something."
"Banal dialogues and actions become attractive and dramatic because Kroetz is never in a hurry," critic Dragan Klaic wrote in a 1974 Yale Theater Review. "He always gives enough time to his characters, leaving the normal rhythms of life undisturbed by the demands of theatricality."
Still, such an approach places a high demand on the actors. "Doing Kroetz's work requires a certain commitment to give over to this type of work," says Wagrowski. "Otherwise I can easily imagine a production that would be hard to sit through."
In San Francisco, Wagrowski once played a leading character in one of Kroetz's more brutal works, Mishi's Blood. "It's a short play when you read it," he said. "In 20 to 25 minutes, you're done. There was an hour and 20 minutes of silence. It was a play that lasted for two hours. To this day, it's my favorite piece of acting. I was 24 then and I'm 44 now. So in the last 20 years, that was still the most memorable acting experience in my life."
Similarly, Millbern says one of the most chilling theatrical experiences he ever had was seeing Kroetz's Request Concert, a 1972 play with no dialogue that features little more than a woman matter-of-factly going through her nightly routine before killing herself. "The whole time you're just glued to this person; it's unbelievable," he said.
No wonder Wagrowski objected to critics' frequent use of the word "banal" in describing Kroetz's work. "I find it very interesting to sit on a park bench and watch people walk by and play with their kids," he said. "I find people watching very interesting. They're not doing anything special in public. They are just doing everyday little things. It's interesting. People are interesting. So I don't think it's so banal."
"But if you want to see a car chase, don't come to this play," Marloth interrupts with a laugh.
"Well, we may throw one in," adds Wagrowski.
But don't count on it. Expect some intense drama, riveting performances and plenty of emotional collisions as Colorado Actors' Theater produces a rare staging of an unusual and compelling drama.
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