Kitsch, or Two for the Price of One
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 13, 2009
The concept of Kitsch, or Two for the Price of One, is actually quite brilliant. Playwright Trav S.D. has taken Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors (along with its source material, Plautus's Menaechmi) and grafted it onto a new set of characters and circumstances in Berlin at the very moment that the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. He's also doubled the number of twins (hence his title), so that instead of there being two sets of mismatched brothers, in Kitsch there are four.
The first scene of the play sets the whole thing up. It's 1945, and a crazy Nazi scientist named Dr. Mangler (pronounced VERRRY similarly to "Mengele") is performing outlaw genetic research on four sets of identical twins. No sooner has he explained his bizarre experiment to some colleagues than word comes that the barrier between East and West Berlin is about to be erected (and the border between East and West Germany effectively sealed). To erase evidence of his work, Mangler orders his assistants to split up the babies. One child from each of the four sets of twins is taken to East Berlin, while their identical siblings are brought into West Berlin. There they will live and grow, unaware of the whereabouts of their brothers, until that fateful day 44 years later...
(I told you the premise was brilliant.)
Fast forward to West Berlin, 1989. Geldhund is the prosperous and well-liked proprietor of a cabaret/drinking establishment, where the chief entertainer is an androgynous chanteur/se called Schwamm. The bouncer is Geldhund's oversized lifelong friend Milchstein, whose nickname is "Baboon." The dishwasher is their lifelong pal Hanswurst, and Geldhund's assistant is Vogelbaum, a gay painter whose boyfriend is the club's pianist, Heinz. Geldhund's wife, Hildy, wants him to buy an expensive painting for her from the dealer Kunst (whose name is pronounced in a way that makes it slightly obscene-sounding). But it's a busy night, because tonight the wall is coming down. East Berliners hungry for western-style entertainment will be flocking to Geldhund's establishment.
Meanwhile, four spies from East Berlin arrive, on a mission to check up on some of their countrymen/women who are pouring across the now-porous border. They are, of course, the other twins: the Communist Geldhund, Milchstein, Hanswurst, and Vogelbaum. Almost immediately they start bumping into people who know their West Berlin counterparts. And, as they say, complications and hilarity ensue.
The plotting of Kitsch follows Shakespeare and Plautus fairly faithfully; everything important that happens in The Comedy of Errors pretty much happens in Kitsch—twice. Trav S.D. manages to get his eight hapless heroes embroiled with a variety of colorful characters, including the proprietress of a brothel named Lulu; one of her employees, a hustler/drunk dealer named Snake; Hildy's maid Leni; and Heinz's formidable mother, Mrs. Bruderleiben.
Layered on top of all of this is a tribute to/parody of Brechtian theatre, mostly manifested in the eight songs that Trav S.D. has created for Kitsch, all of them sung presentationally and all of them bearing lyrics alluding to social, economic, and political ills. I was never quite sure how seriously these were meant to be taken, especially those performed by Schwamm, who seems to be intended as a personified allegory of some kind, along the lines of Cabaret's Emcee.
The overall result is a work with more ambition, perhaps, than it can sustain. There's a tension in the script between the seriousness of the framing device and the antic silliness of the works from which it is derived. The production, directed by Ian W. Hill and featuring a cast of 19, is physically large and complicated, with a massive set designed by David Brune that covers the length and breadth of Theater for the New City's biggest space; the set is so wide that it takes the actors a long time to traverse it as they switch from being one twin to another, and so the timing of the show is sometimes compromised. (Note that I attended the second performance, so some of the pacing difficulties I observed will likely improve.)
Trav S.D. himself stars as the Geldhunds, and he's not surprisingly the most effective member of the ensemble. Also delivering standout performances are Roger Nasser, who is delightfully sweet-natured and cooperative as the two Hanswursts, and Josh Mertz, as the two very different Vogelbaums (one flamboyantly gay, the other dutifully Party-bound). Michele Schlossberg-Cwiklik has a great cameo as the domineering Mrs. Bruderleiben. Avery Pearson, as Heinz, works double duty as accompanist (and co-arranger) for all of the musical numbers.
In a program note, Trav S.D. tantalizes us with news about a companion piece to Kitsch called A House Divided, set during the American Civil War and featuring FIVE sets of twins. I can't wait.