The plays and films of the late German author and director Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) were steeped in the atmosphere of his country as well as distinctive artistic works unlike those emanating from other creators. “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” first staged in Germany in 1971 and then adapted for a 1972 film, was among Fassbinder’s prolific output.
An American version with a translation by David Tushingham and direction by Benjamin Viertel has surfaced as a presentation by Third Space at the New Ohio Theatre, and the atmosphere, as one might expect, is far from the Germanic ambience of the original. However, it stands on its own as an interesting and absorbing weird drama involving love, dominance, passion, anger and other emotions stemming from the set-up.
Before the show begins we see Caroline Gombé as Petra von Kant lying motionless and silent on the floor of her apartment. We also see Alex Spieth moving about in the background of the large stage as she fusses with food and dishes and other objects. We soon learn that she is playing Marlene, Petra’s assistant whom Petra dominates and orders around, with Marlene watching what goes on in the apartment and responding accordingly with an array of facial expressions but no dialogue.
Petra is a clothing designer, and she falls for a model, Karin Thimm, played provocatively by Betsey Brown, who uses Petra to advance her career and manipulates Petra with her sexuality. Their turbulent relationship forms the essence of the drama.
Petra has a young daughter, Gabrielle, played skillfully by Jody Doo, who has to act younger than she is, but masters the task with adjusting her voice and body movements to a teenage mode and is amusing to watch.
Others in the cast are Lenore Harris and Mariana Parma, but the focus is primarily on Petra, Karin and the ever-observant Marlene, who endures her own trauma. The bitter tears in the title are no exaggeration, as Petra explodes in grief when she is losing Karin.
A problem with the play is that with all the heat generated it is difficult to feel deeply for Petra. That is due to the oddball nature of the work itself, and the aura of strangeness that hovers over events and characterizations. The effect is often that of camp, but in fairness, there was that aspect in many of the Fassbinder ventures. It falls on the performers to capture our attention and get us to enjoy much of what we are watching, and they certainly succeed at that. At the New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher St #1E. Phone: 212-675-6446. Reviewed February 25, 2017.