Knowing that director Robert Woodruff and actor Bill Camp have again collaborated on creating a new work for the Yale Repertory Theatre, one can safely assume that the evening will be provocative, visceral, uncompromising and at times harrowing. On those fronts certainly “In a Year with 13 Moons” does not disappoint.
Now playing at the New Haven theater through May 18, the play is an adaptation of what arguably is the bleakest and most despairing work of the late German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who in the forefront of the New German Cinema movement sought to disturb and discomfort his audiences as he reflected upon the limitations, cruelties and ruthlessness of post-World War II life. Woodruff and Camp do a remarkable job of translating the work to a stage environment, utilizing video, sound, graphics, live music and an assemblage of unexpected yet stunning visual effects to follow the resiliently tragic journey of the transexual Elvira on what will be the last several days of her life.
Anchoring the production is Camp’s finely wrought performance as Elvira, born Erwin, who maneuvers through the streets of Hamburg, circa 1978, in order to understand and confront the twists and turns her life has taken and salvage whatever self-respect and dignity she can recover from this deliberate attempt at self-discovery. The terrific Camp is absolutely and totally believable as the conflicted and self-loathing Elvira, literally teetering across David Zinn’s spell-binding set in abundant dresses, oversize earrings and a flowing wig. When we first meet Elvira, however, she is dressed as a man, attempting to pick up leather-clad gay men in a cruising district, only to end up assaulted once she is discovered to have made the full transition to the female gender.
Camp and Woodruff adhere fairly well to the details of the Fassbinder flick, with its slow but steady trek through some of the gruesome hardships of Elvira’s life, both before and after the sex change. Their version effectively adapts one of the more overwhelming moments of the film to a stage setting, as a nun from the orphanage in which Erwin grew up relentlessly recounts the increasingly horrifying story of Erwin’s birth, abandonment and abuse, unaware that in her wanderings across and through the set Elvira has collapsed from the sheer enormity of what she has heard.
Throughout the work, Camp ably conveys Elvira’s obsessions with love and acceptance, as well as her despair when facing such losses. Her desperate attempts to keep her current lover Christoph from leaving are played as divine melodrama straight from the 50’s films of Douglas Sirk, whose output heavily influenced the prolific Fassbinder. As the scene unwinds, Woodruff has a Sirk-style technicolor film segment playing and replaying on a video in Elvira’s apartment.
We are also privy to the mutual love between Elvira and her teenage daughter, Marie-Ann, from back when she was Erwin, and the genuine but struggling friendship between Elvira and Marie-Ann’s mother, Irene, played with a mixture of warmth and wariness by Jacqueline Kim. We also meet Elvira’s friend, a concerned writer realistically played by Jesse Perez, and his girlfriend, Sybille, played by Ariana Venturi, who exhibits her quiet exasperation with Elvira’s frequent neediness. Elvira finds a friend in the prostitute Zora who, as played by the energetic Monica Santana, provides the supportive, no-nonsense attitude needed to bolster Elvira on her trajectory.
The production unrolls as a series of set pieces, each provided with an above the stage caption, each presented with unique effects and a distinguishing vision. When Elvira takes Zora on a visit to her former place of employment, a slaughterhouse, Woodruff not only has bright red blood pouring into buckets from the ceiling, but presents us with a series of blood-dripped butchers in tight white costumes carrying blood covered carcasses across the stage, in carefully stylized movements choreographed by David Neumann. Another piece in this intermissionless evening finds Elvira meeting an odd, embittered man who has spent the past year and a half simply staring up at the 16th floor windows of the corporate magnate who fired him, in a silent indictment that goes unnoticed. Elvira will subsequently be confronted by a man preparing to commit suicide, and will be torn between curiosity and annoyance, as the man assumes that all perception will end because of his actions, yet Elvira acknowledges that she will continue on.
Ultimately, Elvira will reconnect with the man for whom she made the decision to change her gender, only to have him reconfirm the fruitlessness of her actions. Christopher Innvar plays the distracted, immature mogul, Anton Saitz (with an “ai”), with the right measure of power and childishness, as he deliberately stages public assassination attempts on his person or runs his gangster style associates through a Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin musical number.
While this is indeed heady stuff, it is mixed with moments of absurd humor or deeply felt pathos. And certainly there are plenty of Woodruff’s stunning, curious and thought-provoking images that have the ability to surprise, excite and aggravate. For example, the scene with Elvira in the cruising park is lit (by the tag team of Jennifer Tipton and Yi Zhao) with a slender horizontal shaft of light extending across the entire stage, as if the scene is being viewed through a single slat in a set of Venetian blinds. As Elvira and Christoph argue, their movements off the visible set are chronicled by live videos that follow them into adjoining rooms and which are projected onto empty walls.
The contributions of Woodruff’s entire design team, as is standard in every Woodruff production, are keenly essential to the success of his meticulous vision. Tipton and Zhao must assure split-second timing as lighting coordinates with set changes and the sound design by composer Michael Attias, who sits in the orchestra pit with fellow musician Satoshi Takeishi, providing an eclectic mix of music and percussion.
Zinn’s set consists of a stage-wide wall with doors on the far sides and a garage-style rolling door in the middle, behind which is Elvira’s bedroom, with the unseen rooms off to one side. There is also a huge, transparent glass-like cube which can be rolled across the front space of the stage and at various times serves as take out station, a bar, or even an elevator lobby. Zinn is also credited for the costumes, which include the dowager-styled outfits that stress Elvira’s hefty size to the colorful garb signifying Zora’s party girl exuberance to the white shirts and holsters of Saitz’s henchmen, along with the red-spewed body suits in the slaughterhouse.
Although Camp’s performance deservedly and necessarily towers over the rest of the cast’s, able support is also provided by Joan MacIntosh as the aforementioned nun and an overly curious, uncooperative cleaning lady, Mickey Solis as the determined suicide and John Kelly as the determined indicter outside of Saitz’s building. Babs Olusanmokun has fine moments as the disparaging and cruel Christoph, who we realize is not entirely wrong in his frustrations with Elvira, and Mariko Nakasone as Elvira’s loving, accepting daughter.
“In a Year with 13 Moons”–the title is explained in a reverse-rolling set of narrative graphics at the top of the play–will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but fans of Fassbinder, those looking to see an extraordinary performance by Bill Camp, and anyone interested in encountering Robert Woodruff’s compelling, disturbing directorial vision will find the evening overwhelmingly rewarding.
For tickets and additional information, contact the Yale Repertory Theatre box office at at 203.432.1234 or visit www.yalerep.org.