She's Lost Control

Shelley Elizabeth Carter on Susanne Kennedy’s Women In Trouble

Susanne Kennedy, Women In Trouble, 2018. Performance view, Volksbühne Berlin, Berlin, 2018. Photo: Julian Roder.

A COLLEAGUE ONCE QUIPPED that the imposing, concrete building of the Volksbühne Berlin looked like it was ripped from the pages of Marvel Comics. “A superhero headquarters for all the dads,” she joked, playfully pointing to the fact that the German theater has traditionally been a home to showcase the work of cisgendered, heterosexual, white, “bad boy” auteurs. While the artistic provocations of the Volksbühne were once confined to the stage, the controversy associated with the theater recently bled out beyond the the playing space. The institution’s director, Chris Dercon, abruptly resigned in the midst of his inaugural season, following an abbreviated tenure that had been marked by protest.

Within the political noise of this regime change, director Susanne Kennedy’s remarkable new work Women in Trouble, 2018—an intelligent, expansive, candy-coated psychotropic tour de force—assures audiences that no matter who helms the Volksbühne, the future of theater is decidedly female. Born in 1977, Kennedy has worked at the vanguard of performance-making, laying rightful claim to her place in the contemporary canon. Though born in Friedrichshafen, Germany, Kennedy spent thirteen years honing her craft in the Netherlands before moving to Berlin, where she is now based. (A remount of her award-winning adaptation of The Virgin Suicides also played at Volksbühne Berlin earlier this season).

Her latest is a discursive dreamscape—a methodical yet trippy soap opera—that takes us deep into the pacemaker of the post-human heart. The play chronicles traumatic events in the life of actress Angelina Dreem: an assault by a male costar (in the guise of a choreographed fight) in which she is knocked unconscious; an unplanned pregnancy; a recurring argument with her mother, and another one with her partner, Chad (played by Thomas Wodianka); a terminal cancer diagnosis. Angelina (sometimes referred to as “Abigail”) is played by multiple performers—Suzan Boogaerdt, Marie Groothof, Julie Solberg, Anna Maria Sturm, and Bianca van der Schoot)—who reflect the experiences of the character as mirrored by many different bodies.

Susanne Kennedy, Women In Trouble, 2018. Performance view, Volksbühne Berlin, Berlin, 2018. Photo: Julian Roder.

The drama takes place on a carousel of sterile, hyperreal rooms that comprise Lena Newton’s fantastical revolving set. Newton brilliantly blurs the categories of gym, hospital, and salon to create sinister, hybrid, “self-care” spaces that so aggressively insist on serenity that they choke on their promise to calm. The German word for this creepy feeling of sanitized warmth is unheimlich (translated, at its most literal, as unhomelike). Women in Trouble is so deeply unheimlich that it feels downright extraterrestrial.

As Kennedy’s world turns, we feel as though we are seeing the inside of someone’s mind, or watching an anxiety-fueled internet binge, each new room popping open like so many browser tabs. As the character of Angelina is reflected in many different bodies, so too can the space be viewed through multiple lenses: a living room has the artificial aura of a television set; the reception area of a cancer treatment center might be taken for a boutique fitness center. In keeping with the “intellectual jukebox” culture that has become de rigueur in contemporary performance, the script is collaged together from a variety of sources: Deleuze & Guattari, Joseph Campbell, John Cassavetes, Joseph Beuys, David Lynch—other cultural and intellectual “dads.” Stripped of context, language and ideas devolve into a kind of stock footage. The dialogue is nothing more than a remix of philosophy and film and television stitched together by a singular common thread: all is spoken in English, the colonialist language of globalization.

Susanne Kennedy, Women In Trouble, 2018. Performance view, Volksbühne Berlin, Berlin, 2018. Photo: Julian Roder.

The performers, like inverted karaoke machines, lip sync their lines to a pre-recorded voice-over that sounds as though it was spoken by non-actors, or that they were given little to no direction regarding their delivery. Kennedy smartly preserves the inevitable faltering, anxiety, and naked hesitation of the unrehearsed performer, which colors the otherwise emotionless text with shades of apology and rootless shame. Adding to this feeling of estrangement, the performers wear Latex masks, which quarantines expression from faces, highlighting the peculiar idioms of casual, physical gesture. None of the characters touch, or look at each other, but when an emotion is called for, they dissolve into histrionic crying and laughing, transforming into pathetic, twitching meat sacks. The effect is at once disturbing, humorous, and heartbreaking.

To force too much sense out of Women In Trouble is a dizzying task. A line in the voice-over allows for some reverse engineering from the play’s circuitous narrative loops: “…she irritates people not just because of her gender, but because we simply can’t process her narrative. There are no stories that prepare us for her trajectory through life and, therefore, we react to her as if she’s a disruption in our reality, rather than a person.” (It should be noted that there is a backend post-performance experience available after watching Women in Trouble for those curious or intrepid enough, which is to Google all of the lines from the script, an experience akin to finding Easter eggs hidden by developers in the old school Microsoft products. For example, the line quoted above is from a 2016 article in The Guardian about Hillary Clinton.) Like a skilled psychic surgeon, Kennedy participates in this “disruption to our reality” too, extracting all humanity from the space, leaving her audience in a sanitized landscape devoid of blemish and, quite possibly, breath. Could what we’re watching be Dreem’s life flashing before her eyes in her final moments? Or is this her afterlife, in the seconds just following her death?

Susanne Kennedy, Women In Trouble, 2018. Performance view, Volksbühne Berlin, Berlin, 2018. Photo: Julian Roder.

A Beckettian playfulness slices through some of this gravity: the Dreems are outfitted in track pants and a never-ending supply of logo t-shirts, emblazoned with brand names like INFINITI and ISTOCK; one simply reads GENDER. Despite the prescience of this production’s depictions of bodies and technology, gender representation in Women in Trouble feels like an operating system that’s missing a few updates. The character of Michael is a cancer patient whose story of healing is fetishized for consumption in a television interview during which one of the hosts remarks, with regard to masculine and feminine energy, “As I’m sitting here and experiencing your energy, you are someone who happens to have both, equally.” Yet Women in Trouble demurs from incorporating texts that would allow for a more intersectional, nuanced exploration of who exactly are the “women” in its title.

Towards the end of the play, a line heard earlier by British physicist Sir James Hopwood Jeans is reiterated: “The stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.” In the final moments of Women in Trouble, the five Angelina Dreems stand in their separate rooms, their eyes on the horizon, looking like a sort of Real Housewives of Non-Mechanical Reality. As the stunning phantasmagoria of Kennedy’s multiverse builds in visual intensity, a soaring operatic track electrifies them. Angelina is at last in concert with her many selves, and the audience travels through a hallucinogenic gauntlet of images, from a consciousness-raising animated fox, to Eve and the apple tree. Split into schizoid shards by quantum mechanics, trauma, capitalism (or the trauma of capitalism), have the Dreems finally found wholeness? Or rather, have they found a new understanding of the fractured nature of their reality and their oneness within it? Kennedy leaves us suspended in these questions long after the merry-go-round of their flickering identities has stopped.

Shelley Elizabeth Carter is a writer and producer based in Brooklyn.

Susanne Kennedy’s Women In Trouble is performed on select evenings through May 30th at the Volksbühne Berlin in Germany.