An explosive and lyrical exploration of familial angst and decadence, One Little Goat Theatre Company's production of Ritter, Dene, Voss by Thomas Bernhard is many things: intriguing, troubling, often funny, and ultimately unsatisfying. Playwright Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) was a controversial post-war Austrian writer known for his bleak and misanthropic outlook. He has been compared with both Samuel Beckett and Ionesco because of his absurd, grim portrayal of the human condition. Reportedly, Bernhard was so disgusted with his compatriots that he stipulated in his will that none of his plays may be performed in Austria while they remain in copyright. Fortunately, that doesn't prevent Toronto-based One Little Goat Theatre Company from producing the New York premiere of Ritter, Dene, Voss.
Written without punctuation and filled with repetitions and word-play, Ritter, Dene, Voss is a poetic examination of the dysfunctional relationships of three wealthy siblings. The play, named for the actors who originated the three roles, concerns the homecoming of mad philosopher Ludwig (Jordan Pettle) from an asylum to the home of his older and younger sisters (Maev Beaty and Shannon Perreault), both actresses.
Surrounded by faceless and nude portraits of their parents and uncles, the older and the younger sisters argue over their brother's arrival, which the elder engineered and the younger resists. When Ludwig comes down for dinner, the sisters' quotidian existence explodes. Old wounds smart as the siblings talk past each other, the sisters competing for their brother's favor, and their ever-more-unhinged brother tries to force them to send him back to his asylum.
These are the kinds of family struggles which can have no satisfactory end, leading to wounds that never heal. Perhaps this is why the play ends so suddenly, offering no sense of closure.
Ritter, Dene, Voss is elegantly directed by Adam Seelig, who balances the restraint of the older and younger sisters with the frenetic behavior of their brother and creates some beautiful tableaux. Unfortunately, the few moments when the actors slip out of character to address each other, the audience, and the stage manager seem unjustified and out of place.
Beaty and Perreault are completely believable in their roles, and Pettle's Ludwig is at once compellingly charismatic and skin-crawlingly unhinged. His late entry introduces a much-needed, cutting sense of humor to the proceedings as he abuses actors, artists, and contemporary aesthetics at every turn.
Lighting designer Rosie Cruz creates some beautiful silhouettes, while the simple set and costume designs by Jackie Chau are attractive and serviceable.
Strange that a production that is well-designed, well-performed, and well-directed should be so unsatisfying. Not every story can have a pat conclusion, but one would hope for a sense of aesthetic completion. Instead, one leaves Ritter, Dene, Voss wondering why the house lights came up so soon. Nevertheless, One Little Goat Theatre Company's production is a good opportunity to see Thomas Bernhard's work. Those who admire poetic dramas and explorations of the dark side of human relations will find much to enjoy.