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nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
In Venezuela, it takes a tragedy to stimulate the imagination of a
disaffected gang who escape the daily slog of poverty and hopelessness by
train-surfing. The play, written by Guy Helminger and translated from German by
Penny Black, takes place in East Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Helminger personalizes the scars of German reunification through his gritty gang
of five, who personify the poor education system and the lack of opportunity by
hanging out at a train station plagued by filth and graffiti.The language of Venezuela is front and center. In the program’s
Translator’s Note, Black explains the difficulty of translating Knustsprache,
an artificial language overturning strict grammatical rules governing German.
Since English doesn’t have the same restrictions, the effect is not always
completely successful. And so it is with this play. One reason is because
visually it is easy to believe that the characters are from the South Bronx
during the '70s or '80s. Primarily, though, it is because the language—a type of
street lingo—is in English using a German formula. It’s understandable, but it
isn’t familiar. Still, the speech and its rhythms are specific; so specific that
there is a glossary of slang (although the play is intelligible without it) and
an explanation of its rhythms, and once the play is in full swing it becomes
less intrusive. Someone knowledgeable in German and in German theater might have
found Black’s translation entirely credible.The play starts with the death of Fragel, the most accomplished train-surfer
in this tightly-knit gang. He is unable to hold onto the rail for one more
station, slips beneath the train and is torn apart. Although Fragel is never
seen, he is ever-present, holding the five friends together for a year as they
come to terms with his death, each in his own way.Kerm, who photographs Fragel hanging onto the train as it passes the station,
witnesses his death immediately after. Reluctantly, he tells Book and Flada when
they show up, and they agree to withhold the news from young Olif, who idolizes
Fragel. Instead, they tell him that Fragel took off for Venezuela where
train-surfing is the best. Book, the only one attending school, writes colorful
letters to Olif from Fragel describing train-surfing competitions, his new
friend Pedro, and other adventures. Ismir, the fifth and most street savvy of
the gang, turns a skeptical eye, but the others—despite German postage stamps, a
train-less Venezuela, and a report in the paper of the train-surfing death—live
on this fantasy for a year. About the length of time it takes to realize that
East Berlin is gone forever and each must move on.Venezuela, ably directed by James David Jackson, is a thoughtful,
challenging piece of theatre. It is about real people and real loss, although
the loss—of the individual characters and the gang as a whole—could have been
more heartfelt. Jason Zimbler as Book provides the gang-as-family with hope.
Brendan Bradley, a last minute replacement in the role of the naive, uneducated
Olif, performs with enthusiasm. Jamie Klassel delivers a groupie as the sole
female, Flada. Her character delivers a moment of humanity at the end when she
chastises Kerm, played by Joe Sousa, for not rushing to Fragel after he dies.
Hasani Issa gives Ismir a large presence. He is a man entering adulthood who
chooses to believe that Fragel abandoned them to live under a box in the park.Joe Powell designed the wonderfully run-down underground station. Designers
for lighting and costumes are George Gountas and Meryl Pressman, respectively.
Bill Kirby wrote original music.
August 15, 2005