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Broken Women, Made Whole Onstage


HAMBURG, Germany — Anyone who saw the 2020 film “Pieces of a Woman,” on Netflix or the big screen, will not soon forget its 22-minute single-take opening scene of a home birth. For those who haven’t yet seen Kornel Mundruczo’s movie, I won’t be revealing too much by saying that things take a turn for the worse in that technically dazzling sequence.

The effect is remarkably similar to what Mundruczo, a Hungarian director, put onstage for the TR Warszawa theater in Warsaw in his 2018 production of “Pieces of a Woman,” which was recently performed at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg. (The piece is in TR Warszawa’s repertory and will next tour to Naples, Italy, in March.) The birth takes place largely behind closed doors, and the audience watches a live video feed that is projected onto the front of the closed set. As in the film, Mundruczo gives us the birth in a single, heart-stopping shot, with no cuts to enable the audience to catch its breath.

While comparisons between films and the plays they are based on have their limits, the stage version is altogether richer, more intimate and more fully imagined than the one onscreen.

The play’s author, Kata Weber, who is Mundruczo’s wife, treats the harrowing birth as a prologue to a magisterially drawn-out dinner. Clocking in at close to two hours, it’s a family meal that feels like a one-act drama in its own right.

It’s been six months since the tragic evening that opens the play, and the grieving woman and her husband show up for roast duck and painful revelations. Unlike the film, which was a vehicle for its star, Vanessa Kirby (who won the best actress prize at the Venice Film Festival as well as an Oscar nod), the stage version is less a character study than a portrait of the ways that relationships among parents, children, siblings and partners fray in the aftermath of a tragedy.

In the main role, Maja, Justyna Wasilewska, is emotionally naked and intense in her grief, yet also full of dazzling wit and vivacity. But Mundruczo surrounds her with six actors whose extraordinary performances make this a true ensemble piece. There is Dobromir Dymecki as Maja’s charming engineer husband, Lars, who, afraid to confront his grief head-on, lapses into immaturity and inappropriate behavior. There is Magdalena Kuta as Maja’s stern foster mother, who has invited a lawyer relative (Marta Scislowicz, who is more cautious than calculating) in hopes of convincing Maja to take legal action against the midwife.

For all the sharp words, machinations and recriminations, the extended scene is neither somber nor bleak. Instead, the serious themes are shot through with humor, pathos and ironic reversals that bring to mind Chekhov or Bergman. When Maja and her competitive stepsister (Agnieszka Zulewska) twirl around the dining room with gymnastic ribbons to the 1980s Italian pop hit “Felicità,” the exuberant moment provides a sort of wordless catharsis. Although Maja has suffered an unimaginable blow, we understand that she’s far from broken: not because she’s moved on, but because she has the fortitude to own her pain. Defiantly, she recognizes her loss, yet refuses to be defined by it.

The determination to acknowledge and understand past trauma as a way of moving on from it also animates the work of Annie Ernaux. This French writer has been setting her life down on the page for nearly five decades, in both autobiographical fiction and memoir. Her 2016 coming-of-age memoir “A Girl’s Story” appeared in English in 2020 and introduced American readers to her precise and incandescent style.

A new chamber adaptation of the novel at the Residenztheater in Munich, “Erinnerung eines Mädchens” (“Memory of a Girl,” as per the book’s title in German and in French), is directed by the young Italian Silvia Costa, who distributes passages taken verbatim from Ernaux’s memoir among three performers from the theater’s permanent acting ensemble.

Sibylle Canonica, Juliane Köhler and Charlotte Schwab each bring slightly different readings to the text and to Ernaux’s half-century-old recollections. The play begins in 1958, when the 18-year-old Annie Duchesne takes a job as a counselor at a summer camp and has her first sexual experiences, including a messy encounter with the older head counselor, with whom she falls in love. Although the tone is often cool and dispassionate, the effect is poetic and intimate as Ernaux investigates the storehouse of her memories with directness, honesty and analytic rigor.

The trio of middle-aged actresses whom Costa enlists to narrate Ernaux’s reminiscences suggest not so much a splintering of the self as a multiplication of consciousness. Canonica, Köhler and Schwab move about the intimate black box of the Residenztheater’s smaller stage, the Marstall, performing a near-continuous series of actions. Some, like the frequent costume changes, clearly suggest fluid transitions between time periods and locations; others, such as elaborate rituals involving screens, mirrors, glasses of milk, rocks, string, dirt and clay figures of body parts, hint at the mysterious mechanisms of memory. The production’s powerful coda, in which the actresses enter a hidden photo lab and print a portrait of the young Ernaux (it’s featured on the book’s cover in the United States), suggests that mental recall works like a darkroom where the past can be developed, enlarged and fixed.

The staging is delicate, but with a solid structure and rhythm that usher the viewer through the brisk 80-minute production. The way that Costa makes a spoken word performance flow gently and organically is impressive. One of the few missteps is Ayumi Paul’s jarring original score, which occasionally overwhelms the subdued emotions onstage and makes it hard to hear the actresses.

Watching this show put me in mind of one of the Residenztheater’s best recent productions, Bastian Kraft’s reimagining of “Lulu,” in which Frank Wedekind’s antiheroine was brought to life by three actresses, including Köhler and Schwab. That multiplication made sense, in part, because of the myriad archetypes of womanhood that the character embodies.

By contrast, it is difficult to know what the multiple casting in “Memory of a Girl” is meant to convey. It could simply be that Costa wanted to take advantage of the excellent actresses at her disposal. But I wonder if there was a deeper purpose to the way that the director divided the role beyond providing a more dynamic way of bringing the book to the stage than entrusting the text to a single performer.

“Am I to dissolve the girl of 1958 and the woman of 2014 into a single ‘I’?” Ernaux wonders in “Memory of a Girl.” The interrogation of a splintered or dissociated consciousness may appear to be uniquely suited to the art of writing. Yet Costa, like Mundruzco, finds eminently theatrical means to make us understand a woman who is broken and made whole again.

Pieces of a Woman. Directed by Kornel Mundruzco. In repertory at TR Warszawa in Warsaw.
Memory of a Girl. Directed by Silvia Costa. Through Dec. 28 at the Residenztheater Munich.


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