nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
August 18, 2008
The Talman Ensemble, a theatre collective based in Germany, has brought over a complicated and disturbingly dark new play called Sennentuntschi to the final week of this year's FringeNYC Festival. Written by Hansjorg Schneider, the literal translation of the title is "The Legend of the Cowgirl"—though I think a more appropriate word choice would be "The Legend of the Possessed Farmhands' Doll," since that is more accurately reflects the twisted plot of the piece. Sennentuntschi is simultaneously baffling and compelling, mind-numbingly dull and lightning-quick, and trades in both high-minded morality and coarse sexuality. It is definitely one of the strangest 90 minutes that I have spent this summer (that much I'll give it) and it's obvious that the ensemble is a strong group of actors (particularly in their native German, I would guess).
Sennentuntschi is a difficult piece to categorize, and the plot is thick with turns. Three farmers, Benedict (Luc Spori), Mani (Martin Maurel), and Fridolin (Niklaus Talman, who also directs the Ensemble), are in a cabin in the Swiss Alps and are extremely bored with their prison-like conditions. Benedict prays and occasionally has his way with Mani, who is the cook amongst the three (both Benedict and Mani have wives down the mountain). Fridolin is the oversexed bachelor of the group, and there is quite a bit of testosterone flowing as they count down the days until the harvest has ended. The trio get drunk and create a doll out of household items that Benedict and Fridolin have some bizarre group sex with. When the farmers wake up with hangovers the next morning, their doll has come to life and they name her Mary (Claudia Faes). They feed her, speak to her, and teach her how to have sex on a mattress. Over time, Mary becomes a zombie-ish succubus who drains the pious Benedict, turns Fridolin into somewhat of an automaton, and bewitches the young Mani. By the sunset of the harvest, one of the three farmers will not survive Mary's revenge.
The play is all over the map, and the translation can make some lines in the piece nearly inscrutable. The characters flip-flop from being moral to amoral, faithful to faithless, angry to chummy—seemingly at the drop of a hat. Sennentuntschi is wildly hard to follow—disengaging from the piece for a moment may cost you pages of dialogue before you can catch up.
Sennentuntschi is probably too challenging to many traditional American theatre audiences to be classified as "enjoyable," myself included. But I will give credit where it is due to the gifted vocal and physical choices by all four performers in the Talman Ensemble, and to Talman's directing. His vision is clear and disturbing; and Faes fully embodies a rag doll come to life. As a work of art, I do not think that Sennentuntschi states its intentions clearly enough. For example, if it's a morality play, the wrong character is killed off; if this is a horror play, there's not enough gore and blood; if it's a comedic fable, the humor is lost in the translation; if it's a dramatic work, the exposition drags on too long. I would be curious to see Schneider's original German script, possibly with English subtitles, to see if that would alter my perception of the piece.
As it currently stands, Sennentuntschi was not something I walked away from that I can say that I liked. But I can say that I respect the choices made by the talented Talman Ensemble and by FringeNYC for giving them a chance to play New York.