Letter to Heiner Müller at LaMama ETC, New York
A Letter to Heiner Müller
reviewed by Martin Denton · December 6, 2012
I don’t know about you, but I’m always ready to be pushed outside my comfort zone; that’s why I love to go to La MaMa, because it’s a place where that frequently happens. Zagreb Youth Theatre’s amazing, exhilarating theater piece Letter to Heiner Muller provided just the jolt that I needed; it’s as intimate, challenging, and thought-provoking a show as I’ve seen in a very long time. If you’re up for that—and come on, why aren’t you?—I suggest you take it in during ZYT’s too-brief sojourn here in NYC (there are only four performances scheduled).
It’s a piece to be experienced rather than explained or described; we can talk about it for a long time after you’ve seen it, but I hate to ruin it for you beforehand. It’s about an hour long, and the first half is performed in Croatian with English supertitles that you can’t always (probably aren’t supposed to be able to) read; the second half is in English. Three actors—the prodigiously talented Goran Bogdan, Frano Maškovic and Danijel Ljuboja—portray themselves and three characters who are probably the same man. The script by Goran Fercec does not track a narrative in any traditional way, but there’s definitely a throughline and a chronology.
Mostly what Letter does is establish a pervasive and very palpable mood: this is a play about what it feels like to be watched, and the concomitant feeling of always looking over your shoulder; it gave me, an American who tends to take his freedoms too much for granted, a sense of what it might be like to live under a repressive regime where an informer or a spy or worse could lurk beyond any corner. It also made me think about what it means to be a performer—these three brave, surprising performers in particular, working before an audience that can’t be counted on to understand either their words or their intentions, with a raw and urgent immediacy that doesn’t just circumvent communication challenges but up-ends and subverts them.
The collaborative ethos on display here is remarkable. Director Bojan Ðorðev and his actors and designers use the most minimal of techniques to constantly keep us guessing. Within the play are dozens of moments that just shouldn’t work because they seem like they’re pulling focus or just going on too long; but once Letter‘s rhythms make themselves known, and certainly once you’ve digested the piece and thought back on it, everything seems purposeful.
As I reflected on the show, thinking about how to try to do it justice in this review, I thought about how much more of our existence plays out in public arenas these days, compared to even 5 or 6 years ago. The notion that we are all performers, consciously and not; that we are struggling to be understood in a world filled with too much information and noise and static—these feel resonant to me as I look back on my hour at the Ellen Stewart Theatre.
I love that I got taken to such untethering and disorienting places by this work, and that I was constantly surprised by the way it unfolded.