VIENNA — The painted curtain of the Theater in der Josefstadt, Vienna’s oldest continually running theater, creaked loudly last month when it rose for the first time in six months.
Since performing arts venues in Austria began reopening on May 19 — after their longest shutdown since World War II — Vienna has seen an avalanche of live cultural offerings, from Mahler symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic and Baroque opera staged with puppets to theater productions based on the works of two very different Austrian writers, Stefan Zweig and Thomas Bernhard.
Zweig, the early 20th-century Viennese novelist, biographer, journalist and playwright, was one of the most popular writers of his day. His writings, especially his memoir, “The World of Yesterday,” are tinged with nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He wrote that autobiography in 1941, from exile in Brazil, a year before he committed suicide. Long neglected in the English-speaking world, Zweig and his large body of work have found renewed appreciation there since the 2014 release of Wes Anderson’s movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which was largely a homage to the author.
Bernhard was more of a troublemaker. He was 11 when Zweig took his life, and grew up in the shadow of the Nazi period. Throughout his career, he hurled provocations at his countrymen, exposing the moral rot of a society that claimed to be “Hitler’s first victim” with writing of virtuosic vitriol and elegant irony. He posthumously banned all publication and performances of his work in Austria after his death in 1989, although the prohibition was later annulled by an heir.
The German director Kay Voges chose Bernhard’s “Histrionics” to begin his tenure as the artistic director of Vienna’s Volkstheater. Voges previously led the Schauspiel Dortmund, and the start of his first season in Vienna was delayed by both the coronavirus pandemic and an extensive renovation of the building.
So when, at the beginning of the production, the imposing actor Andreas Beck shouted the line “What, here? In this stuffy atmosphere, I’m supposed to perform my play?” it got a big laugh. After all, the refurbishments have restored the theater to a state unseen since it was founded in 1899 as a middle-class alternative to the aristocratic Burgtheater.
The German title for “Histrionics,” written in 1984, translates as “The Theatermaker,” and the play is about a dictatorial director called Bruscon who tours his epic drama, “The Wheel of History,” to a fictional village. Everything conspires against him there, and the production is set back by failed negotiations with local officials, inept acting from the cast and a sinister local culinary tradition known as Blutwursttag — Blood Sausage Day.
For much of the play, Bruscon rants and raves against everything that falls short of his exacting artistic standards, and Voges deconstructs “Histrionics” into nine variations on the character’s epic grouse against the world. These range in length from one hour to a matter of minutes, and encompass, among other things, classically acted backstage drama and a bewilderingly camp routine featuring dancing Hitlers in black tutus.
After nearly three exhausting and intermissionless hours, we read the words “The End of Theater” on the final curtain.
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More than a year of sampling theater largely from my laptop had made me forget the unique agony of being trapped in a performance that shows no sign of ending. I confess to having felt an almost masochistic thrill at once again suffering such theatrical torments. However, the production does highlight several of the Volkstheater’s new ensemble actors, including Anna Rieser and Nick Romeo Reimann as Bruscon’s tormented children.
Many of the themes in “Histrionics,” including the loss of authority, institutional decay and the artist railing against mediocrity, are also present in Bernhard’s early and little-seen drama “The Hunting Party,” playing at the Burgtheater, where it premiered in 1974. Lucia Bihler’s eye-popping production was the first of nine premieres that the theater plans to unveil during the remainder of the season.
It’s a curious chamber drama set in a hunting lodge: A general who lost an arm in the Battle of Stalingrad is on an expedition with some government ministers, who seem aware that this veteran, a relic from a vanishing world, has not long to live. As they prepare for a hunt, the general’s wife plays cards and converses with a writer — a clear stand-in for Bernhard — who has accompanied the party as a sort of philosophical jester.
Bihler, a young house director at the Volksbühne in Berlin, has devised a clammy horror-comedy production, with shocking red sets and plasticky costumes (by Laura Krist). It is difficult to square Bihler’s bold aesthetic choices with the content of the play. There are sinister goings-on in a kitchen and the bathroom, the sound design is ominous, and a startling lighting effect briefly turns the stage from blood red to midnight blue. All this conspires to make a convincing theatrical world, but the play’s content and the actors’ performances get lost in the weirdness.
After the endurance test of “Histrionics” and the downright oddity of “The Hunting Party,” I was relieved to settle into something as harmless as “Secret of an Unknown Woman” at the Theater in der Josefstadt.
These days, the playhouse is known for somewhat musty, bourgeois theater that has more in common with Broadway or the West End than with most major companies in the German-speaking world, which favor more avant-garde approaches. The theater has a devoted, if graying, public: The night I attended, I was the youngest person in the audience by at least a quarter-century.
The only untraditional thing about this adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s 1922’s novella “Letter From an Unknown Woman” is a dubious change in perspective. In this production, the British playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, who also directed, has shifted the focus away from the unknown woman of the title and onto the letter’s recipient: a worldly older man with whom she’s been infatuated since age 12.
Hampton makes the Austrian-Jewish Zweig himself the object of her obsession and uses details from the writer’s autobiography to flesh out the character. He also shifts the action to shortly before Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria.
By overlaying the psychological drama of all-consuming love with the historical tragedy of Zweig’s life, Hampton creates confusion over which of these is the story’s emotional core. The mix of sentimentality and 20th-century catastrophe ends up being too much. Despite fine acting from Martina Ebm and Michael Dangl, the climaxes in the short production — a brisk 75 minutes — feel forced and unsatisfying.
It’s a 10-minute walk from the Volkstheater to the Theater in der Josefstadt, but aesthetically, the distance between the two houses is as vast as that between the two authors whose works are currently being performed in them. As Vienna awakes to culture after its long pandemic-induced slumber, it feels appropriate to find both Viennese extremes onstage here: the schmaltz as well as the cynicism.
Histrionics. Directed by Kay Voges. Vienna Volkstheater, through June 4.
The Hunting Party. Directed by Lucia Bihler. Vienna Burgtheater, through June 19.
Secret of an Unknown Woman. Directed by Christopher Hampton. Theater in der Josefstadt, through June 11.