October 18, 2007

Pittsburgh Post Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) October 17, 2007

Stagebus Review: German 'Start Up' starts here, heads west

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

By Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

GTA Company
From left, Ike, Liz, Micha and Rob, with Liz and Ike looming videographically behind them in "Start Up."
The Germans are coming! . . . nope, they've already left!

Perhaps in retaliation for our having just sent a joint American-German production from Pitt to Stuttgart, GTA's Road Theater USA trundled into town by bus yesterday with its first post-NYC, one-night stand on a country-wide, seven-week tour of "Start Up," an ironic, loosely-structured German-American comedy about some Germans traveling the U.S. by bus and doing something like what seems to be going on in the play.

GTA, which stands for German Theater Abroad, was established in New York in 1996 and has grown as a conduit for theater between the two countries. "Start Up" is by Roland Schimmelpfennig, a hot young German playwright, or at least hot enough for Pittsburgh to have heard of him, since Quantum did his "Arabian Night" in 2003.

So this is big stuff or at least has impressive credentials, and it's funky and eccentric, as well, which makes it embarrassing that only a handful of us turned out on an admittedly-rainy Tuesday night to see the show at the Cultural Trust space called SPACE, a perfect self-mirroring venue for a self-mirroring theatrical event.

And "Start Up" started up in exactly that mode, delayed by the 10 or 15 minutes lost when its bus turned over the wrong bridge and encountered a forest of the dreaded orange barrels that strike fear into the hearts of natives, let alone cultural ambassadors from across the pond.

But this is no reincarnation of Ken Kesey and his band of feckless troubadors. The company of five actors is supported by at least as many techies, manning a long stage-side table of computers, running substantial recorded video segments, live video inserts, musical underscoring and such. And they didn't really arrive just at that moment, since the recorded video included some shot around town.

The story concerns three young Germans, Rob, Kati and Micha, footloose (well, busloose) in America, arriving in yet another town to rent a space in which to start a start up something -- most likely a theater, since that's about as vague a cultural import as one can imagine, but perhaps it's going to be a video store, since all the world's videos laid end to end add up to a pretty thorough archive of culture.

The video these young Ameriphiles are most obsessed with is mainly American, replete with images of the prairie and wild west. This makes for some comedy when a travel narrative voice-over speaks of the endless dark countryside and the strange absence of food, while the video shows them roaming about Pittsburgh -- but it does make metaphoric sense, come to think.

Having found a space to rent very much like SPACE, Micha begins to dicker with Ike, its American owner. Rob is off chasing some obsession at that point, perhaps food, and Kati isn't sure that she's going to stay the course, everyone's started to stink so much from living continually on the bus. There's plenty of comedy of cross-purposes, since Ike's experience of Germans is pretty well limited to "Das Boot" and "Judgement at Nuremberg," and Micha and Rob, once he appears, don't actually have the money to make good on the contract they've signed.

Kati finally turns up at the space/SPACE, but not before Ike's randy, gold-booted daughter, Liz. While Liz and Micha get to know each other by tumbling about on the sofa that dominates the set, the others (tracked by video) are off prospecting for food and exploring relationships of their own. Eventually they score big at several ethnic restaurants and bring back so much food I was hoping they were going to share it with us, because it was long enough into the evening that my stomach was rumbling. (The show runs more than 100 intermissionless-minutes, but I trust they'll trim it as they move westward.)

Along the way, there's a long, illustrated lecture on modern German-U.S. history, full of military cemeteries, the Marshall Plan and the dubious aftermath to 9/11. It struck me as dryly ironic, and sometimes obviously so, but I wasn't always that sure of the tone.

Ultimately, roles are exchanged and the road trip in the play begins anew -- as it must, because the company is going to be in Cincinnati on Thursday, in Louisville the next day, and so on.

The sky is different in America, they agree; "it's beautful, this valley, this city" (which works better for Pittsburgh than it will many places). To the strains of "Love Me Tender," the final segment plays out on video, with our actors in western costume, their bus replaced by horses. "We felt like new-borns," says Liz. "Our skin was like untracked snow."

So what's it all about? American myths seen from afar, certainly, and that fascinated gaze then refracted through American eyes; the ubiquity of cultural stereotypes, which may be true for all that; the longing for connection and context and home. Hunger is a metaphor and the cultural melting pot a kind of sustenance. Hopefulness is not dead. I guess.

It's about lots of things. As I finish this, it's past midnight, so I expect I'll digest it all as I sleep.

I enjoyed the cast. Nils Nellessen (Rob) is the romantic bad boy, Nicolai Tegeler (Micha) the alarmed pal who gets more than he'd hoped for and Lisa-Marie Janke (Kati) the laconic go-along who thinks she's a tough cowgirl but discovers another dimension. The Americans (both African-American, by the way) are Roland Sands, as a deceptively garrulous Ike, and Myxolydia Tyler, a fiery-sweet Liz.

If you're interested, you can arrange to catch "Start Up" on its travels as it heads south and westward, tracking it via (the capital letters matter).

As to last night's tiny audience, my wife reminds me that's fine, because my job is to have and report on these experiences on behalf of you who don't have the time. But surely a couple of college classes (students of dramaturgy, filmmaking or Germany, for example) could have made this a class event? I wanted somebody to discuss it with, and Melanie Dreyer, the creator of that Stuttgart adventure and former director of Schimmelpfennig who probably could have explained it, escaped before I could waylay her to continue the cross-cultural dialogue.


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