By Michael Block
Love can make a person go crazy. To the point of an emotional breakdown. Just ask the titular character in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Produced by Third Space at The New Ohio, this dark comedy is a wild ride that will leave you on edge, especially if there's an inkling you can relate and latch onto.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant has a storied history. First a play then a film and now back on stage, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's piece explores the explosive relationships between Petra, a prominent fashion designer, and the various women in her life. Layered with manic chaos and mental breakdowns, Petra finds a deep love and admiration for Karin, a youthful brat of a model trapped in a loveless marriage. Offering her full attention, intimacy, and any object she desires, Petra does whatever it takes to keep Karin with her despite her ill treatment toward Petra. Using her for her connections in the fashion world and her endless wealth, Karin flees when she learns her husband wants her back, thrusting Petra into a downward spiral of emotion. Despite being an established text, there is a new ending unfamiliar to the original play or film. And it packs quite a punch, solidifying this as Marlene's story. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is all about the help. Despite having literally no lines, Marlene is by far the most active and revealing of all characters in the play. Director Benjamin Viertel ensured this by highlighting her when she was not physically in the moment but on the outskirts of the playing space. Tracking Marlene's journey through love and admiration, the devoted servant is emotionally beaten down, bringing one style of comedy into the piece. But it's juxtaposed to some realism that seems to have no place in this world. And much of this is due to pacing. This is comedy and comedy needs to be fast. The first half of the show is anything but. Fassbinder's text, translated by David Tushingham, is problematic but Viertel had a plethora of missed opportunities to infuse a genuine and consistent style. The piece is surrealistic by nature so not matching this in vision causes a disconnect. But when Viertel does embrace the style, the play is at its best. Viertel has asked scenic designer Bryce Cutler to give him a world of challenges when it came to the set. For a large portion of the show, the only real seating location in the main playing space was the pink plush sheets, aslo known as the ground. Petra's fortress is visually unique and stunning but it can be a trap for Viertel and his staging. As a whole, the direction was a bit clunky and unhinged. Keeping the sides visible, which happen to be the home of incoming props, it allowed for Marlene to have her active break moments capture more of her story. There's a give and take when it comes artistic choices. To see Marlene, the lights must be present. As we see at numerous points, when lighting designer Mary Ellen Stebbins removes those side lights, she provides a stunning landscape of color, introducing a rainbow of colors, offering a different color mood for each beat of Petra's breakdown. Costumes can make a show and Emily Chalmers' design was nothing short of a fashion show. Each outfit matched the personalities of the individuals.
It may be a stretch but the dynamic between Petra and Marlene was reminiscent of Norma and Max. In a way, this was Sunset Boulevard for fashion. But the Norma wasn't the focus in this equation. As Marlene, Alex Spieth gave an outstanding performance. You might have been worried that Spieth was going to hurt herself on the fabric as she ran herself ramped, but her commedia told a complete story. Opposite her, Caroline Gombe's erratic performance needed more control. Petra is a complex person but when there's a lack of arc in her madness, it becomes predictable. Taking on the life of the privileged and undeserving, Betsey Brown made Karin the antagonist you wanted to crumble. The hierarchy of dislike from Karin to Petra allowed the admiration of Marlene to pop.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a wild trip through madness that goes off the rails. And it’s a shame because there’s so much good inside.