By Édouard Louis; Adapted by Thomas Ostermeier, Florian Borchmeyer, and Édouard Louis;
Directed by Thomas Ostermeier
Produced by Schaubühne Berlin
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 12.1.19
St. Ann's Warehouse, 45 Water Street
by Keith Paul Medelis on 11.18.19
Laurenz Laufenberg and Renato Schuch in History of Violence. Photo by Teddy Wolff.
BOTTOM LINE: Édouard Louis investigates the roots of violence as told by the clinical, manic direction of Thomas Ostermeier.
“It’s my story,” exclaims Édouard (Laurenz Laufenberg), as the plot of History of Violence becomes increasingly interrupted, misinterpreted, and judged by the outside forces at play in this stage adaptation of Louis’ autobiographical novel. Laufenberg, playing the author, is jostled all over the stage in his own nightmare of memory and retelling of the incident. We meet his sister, police officers, mother, father, and friends, all played by Christoph Gawenda and Alina Stiegler, with some slight of the hand by famed director Thomas Ostermeier of the Schaubühne Berlin. Sometimes, with the skirt of the sister and the tie of the police officer, we’re not meant to know who is whom. In the fractured vacuum of the reliving of trauma, they are all one and the same.
At all of 27 years old, Louis sends a cautionary tale from France to the United States about our misguided desire for safe spaces. A leading voice during the Yellow Jacket protests, this young, prolific artist is characterized by a stubborn critique of the bourgeois, Macron, and any lack of attention on poor, working class, and queer folk. “I fight for the people, even if they are not good people,” he says—like his father, and in an even more complicated portrait of a man from a defining moment of his life, his rapist.
The sparseness of Nina Wetzel's scenic and costume design—where two chairs can play a car—would seem amateur, if not for the deft hands of these European auteurs. Ingenuity mixed with simplicity plays out on a blank white canvas: microphones are haphazardly used, a single shower head lines the back wall, and close-up shots of black paint peeling off the stage floor somehow become captivating. It all seems like a well intentioned accident. (It is not.)
The autobiographical novel (of the same name) on which this piece is based carves an elegant, even sexy, portrait of Reda, who is brought to the stage by Renato Schuch. It is telling of Louis’ work that even the man who violently raped him at gunpoint gets a full character evaluation, not to mention a thorough attempt towards understanding his origins. Rather wonderfully, the novel explores Louis' racist father’s claims that “blacks” and “Arabs” must be avoided; here, a man of North African decent often defended as not Arab but “Kabyle,” is the welcome—then very unwelcome—guest in Édouard's bedroom.
The courtship of Édouard and Reda begins commonplace enough on Christmas Eve. Reda is cruising and eventually convinces Édouard to take him home. After polite conversation about the stacks of books by Édouard’s bed, the two have multiple seemingly beautiful sexual encounters throughout the evening. But while Édouard showers, Reda takes a turn toward petty theft. When Édouard discovers his phone is missing, Christmas morning becomes violent. Reda accuses Édouard of attacking his upbringing by claiming he is a thief (something we just saw proven) and eventually, this leads to rape, as Édouard is held accountable for Reda’s own sexual attractions.
It’s a violent scene. Ostermeier has choreographed the rape over that very same pile of books the two men made small talk about before. The scene seems to send echoes of the crevices of flesh smashing loud enough to extend beyond the walls of the theater and out to the East River, as we remain voyeuristically silent, culpable in our betrayal.
“Acts of ugliness and violence creates more space for beauty.”
Louis’ work takes a tricky turn here, one I suspect a safe-space-seeking American audience might struggle with. Louis asks us to move past the rape, fully experience the shame, even use it to create an internationally successful novel, and then, more or less, to forget about it. It’s an unsatisfying conclusion to the stage version, on that I fear has more tinges of Schaubühne Berlin's German efficiency than the French poetic prose (filtered through my English translation) of Louis' novel. After all that comes before, I have a hard time accepting this ending. Or perhaps this is an intentional, if infuriating, cyclical metaphor of continual violence, and how it acts on the queer, the poor, the non-white, and the fem—meant to illuminate how such violence is so inherently terrible, and so difficult to comprehend.
In any case, the violence continues. We move on.
(History of Violence plays at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 45 Water Street in Brooklyn, through December 1, 2019. The running time is 2 hours with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 7:30; Sundays at 5 (no performance Thursday 11/28). Tickets $56 - $71 and are available through at stannswarehouse.org or by calling 866-811-4111.)
History of Violence is based on the book by Édouard Louis and adapted by Thomas Ostermeier, Florian Borchmeyer, and Louis. Directed by Ostermeier. Scenic and Costume Design by Nina Wetzel. Video Design by Sébastien Dupouey. Lighting Design by Michael Wetzel. Music by Nils Ostendorf. Dramaturg is Florian Borchmeyer. Stage Manager is Roman Balko.
The cast is Christoph Gawenda, Laurenz Laufenberg, Renato Schuch, Alina Stiegler, and Thomas Witte (Musician.