nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
October 3, 2008
International Culture Lab's production of Andreas Jungwirth's Outside Inn is a lot like watching a book come to life. It is mostly narration and the parts that are enacted are done so very roughly and without the detail inherent in the primarily English/German bilingual text. Key phrases are continuously projected onto the back wall (labeled "WALL" in very large, 3D cut out letters) and descriptive language addressed to the audience is more frequent than dialogue. Unfortunately, while the play begins full of suspense and interest, the ever-growing unlikability of the characters diminishes its initial potential.
The story revolves around four people, who are onstage the whole time. Any other characters that pop up are played by wire silhouetted mannequins. The story begins with Paul, an unhappy German engineer married to the misfortune-magnet Kathleen. They married because she was "stronger" than him, as well as the heir to a German civil engineering company run by a man, whom we never see, named Kawolski. Paul ends up having an affair with Marina who is married to the drunk and violent Chris (who had met Kawolski a few times and consequently been entrusted with his deepest secret). Marina and Chris have just returned from a sordid stint in Africa. But the man at the heart of it all, as we learn, is the unseen Kawolski.
There is just enough intrigue and mystery to keep us engaged, but I wanted more. Most of the revelations happen about halfway through the play and the question becomes less "what will happen next?" and more "where will they drive to?"
My disappointment in Outside Inn stems from the characters. While Paul, played by charismatic Austrian actor Markus Hirnigel, at first seems charming though unfulfilled, his actions becoming increasingly unjustified and heinous and he appears to have no thought or care for any one else. Chris is fairly malevolent from the first minute, and neither Kathleen nor Marina, though emphasized as victims, hold any regard for the feelings of others. We see only the bad side of the four characters (five, if we include Kawolski), there's no one to root for, and it is disheartening to see such selfish vindictive people.
The play switches back and forth between English and German. In one scene, lines are translated over a microphone. In another scene, a (confusing) paragraph paraphrasing the situation is projected on the WALL. Director Melanie Dreyer uses these devices to ensure that we always know what is going on. However, since the point of this project, as elaborated by the press release, is to show how actors and characters change depending on the language they are speaking in, I would have liked to have seen more of the meaning of what was going on coming from the acting and less from technology. Perhaps due to the large amounts of narration or the underlying nastiness of the characters, there is a subtlety lacking in the performances. For example, Karen Sieber, who plays Marina, spends nearly half of the play hyperventilating to show the audience she's upset and/or scared.
Back to the press release: "We are able to 'text' or 'talk' to the whole of the world from the palm of our hand, but the process of 'translating'—intention, emotion, culture—has become more challenging than ever in a globalized world." I think this is an admirable goal, but the characters in Outside Inn are all so lacking in heart and substance, that I learned nothing about their intention, emotion, and culture other than the fact that they are self-serving and vicious. Maybe that's the point. Maybe Outside Inn is saying that indeed we can't understand one another unless we are handed a mediated translation. Maybe we all are just selfish and remorseless, unable and unwilling to understand one another. For the sake of humanity, I sure hope not, though.