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One Little Goat takes a bite of the Big Apple

A scene from Ritter, Dene, Voss, by Thomas Bernhard.

3 out of 4 stars

Ritter, Dene, Voss

Written by Thomas Bernhard

Translated by Kenneth Northcott and Peter Jansen

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Directed by Adam Seelig

Starring Maev Beaty, Shannon Perreault and Jordan Pettle

At La MaMa E.T.C. in New York

Three stars

By Adam Feldman

"Histrionic perversity": such is the judgment rendered by Ludwig, a half-mad and wholly maddening philosopher, in regard to his two sisters, both dilettante actresses, who have just welcomed him home from the sanitarium. It is an opinion that could just as well apply to the entirety of Thomas Bernhard's 1986 anti-comedy Ritter, Dene, Voss, which is now receiving its New York premiere courtesy of Toronto's visiting One Little Goat Theatre Company.

Bernhard, the foremost literary controversialist of post-Nazi Austria, might not object to this characterization, for Ritter, Dene, Voss is nothing if not willfully outrageous. The overall tone is morbid - "It's like the inside of a tomb here," says Ludwig of his wealthy family's Vienna home - and all three siblings stew in a bubbling sludge of rivalry, self-loathing and incestuous lust.

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"My sisters are my destroyers," Ludwig complains. "They annihilate me." He talks that way a lot. "There is no greater folly than helping young artists," he says later in the play. "Help a young artist and you destroy and annihilate him." Other favourite words of Ludwig's include "odious," "repellent" and "nauseating;" his sisters are not generally much cheerier. ("This cul-de-sac is the only possible existence for us," says the more optimistic of the two.)

Such dialogue, translated from Bernhard's German by Kenneth Northcott and Peter Jansen, might be excruciating if played as straight drama. But Ritter, Dene, Voss is intensely aware of itself as theatre; two of its three characters are actors, and the play's coy title refers to nothing in the actual script, but rather to the names of the Austrian cast of the original production.

Director Adam Seelig wisely draws out and builds upon the piece's inherent metatheatricality. At several points he has his actors break out of character, and he situates them on an explicitly unrealistic set designed by Jackie Chau. (The art within the show is especially absurdist in flavour; it includes two portraits whose faces have been cut out and a pair of very silly surrealist nudes.)

Seelig's cast delivers the text with clarity and distinctive style. Jordan Pettle brings a compelling mix of arrogance and self-pity to the "philosophical thug" Ludwig (a name that links the character to Wittgenstein, whom he resembles, as well as to Beethoven, whom he admires); Maev Beaty is touchingly natural as the older of his sisters, who dotes on him, and Shannon Perreault is aptly sharp-edged as the younger, who sneers and snipes from the sidelines.

For all the intelligence of Seelig's designs on the play, however, Ritter, Dene, Voss's would-be shocks have a whiff of quaintness. In the absence of more conventional theatrical satisfactions - such as plot and character development - there is only so long one can watch the playwright try to stick it to the Central European haute bourgeoisie before one begins to check one's watch. Even 25 years ago, Bernhard's overarching debts to such theatrical troublemakers as Antonin Artaud, Jean Genet and Eugène Ionesco must have seemed somewhat overdue.

One Little Goat is to be commended, however, for giving us a rare taste of Bernhard's work, which some will surely be eager to acquire. Until now, a certain kind of Off-Off Broadway company - eager for retro-edgy plays about class, sex and neurosis, with small casts, single sets and swank Continental pedigrees - has had to stage Genet's The Maids or August Strindberg's Miss Julie. New York usually gets several productions of each every year. Seelig and company are giving such troupes another option to consider.

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Ritter, Dene, Voss runs in New York until Oct. 10.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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