Catch Him If You Can

Alexei Lerer

Heiner Goebbels

Composer and director Heiner Goebbels brings his play "Max Black" to Moscow's Stanislavsky Electrotheater.

Fluidity and subtleness are vital characteristics for German director and composer Heiner Goebbels, who is bringing a reinterpretation of his 1998 play, "Max Black, or 62 Ways of Supporting the Head with a Hand," to Moscow in October.

"Max Black" will be performed at the Stanislavsky Electrotheater, which last year took over the space of the former Stanislavsky Theater on Tverskaya Street in the heart of Moscow. The reimagining of the theater, which is under the artistic direction of Boris Yukhananov and uses innovative lighting and staging technology, made it possible for Goebbels to stage his action-oriented, conceptual play in the theater.

The one-man show will be performed by Alexander Panteleev. Panteleev has worked with dozens of directors, but one of his formative experiences was performing under Anatoly Vasilyev of the Meyerhold school in "The Grown-up Daughter of a Young Man." The versatility Panteleev developed while working with Vasilyev informs his performance in "Max Black" in which he brings inanimate forms to life with a single gesture. As Panteleev touches objects, their sounds and their "souls" extend, expand and take on lives of their own. Eventually, the objects take control of the man on stage.

The play has some things in common with an earlier Goebbels work, "Stifter's Things," which involves no actors at all. The action on stage is carried out by various sound-producing mechanisms, ranging from hooting plastic pipes to an upended grand piano with its wires exposed. "Stifter's Things" takes its inspiration from a story by 19th-century Austrian poet and writer, Adalbert Stifter, in which he named a frozen forest "Thing." "We all waited, remaining still, and looked — not knowing whether it was surprise or fear that prevented us from entering this Thing," Stifter wrote in the story.  

There is a tenuous link between "Stifter's Things" and the staging of "Max Black" in Moscow: Goebbels has long taken inspiration from German author Heiner Müller, and his fragmentary dramatic style. Müller in turn was captivated by the endless frozen Russian taiga.  

But "Max Black" is far from the first play Goebbels has staged in Russia. The director first became known in the country with a stage production of his play "Hashirigaki" at the 2001 Chekhov Festival. In the play, Goebbels gave a trio of virtuosic actresses the chance to improvise on a script written by Gertrude Stein, and the stage action turned into absurd and hilarious jazz. The next Goebbels work seen in Moscow was "Eraritjaritjaka." The play's title is an Australian aboriginal expression that means "yearning for something lost," and is a live recording of the main actor leaving the theater set to music by two contemporary Russian composers living in Germany, Alexei Mossolov and Vasily Lobanov. Goebbels followed that performance with a composition entitled "Black on White," which was shown at the Bolshoi Theater. Dedicated to Heiner Müller, the basis of the play is a recording of Müller reading the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

Last year, the director brought "When the Mountain Changed its Clothing," to Russia. The play features a 36-member girls choir that performs everything from folksongs to Arnold Schönberg and speculates on the nature of existence, reciting quotations from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Gertrude Stein, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marina Abramović, Ian McEwan and Adalbert Stifter.

Goebbels, who has said that he dislikes contemporary theater, draws his inspiration from a variety of life experiences.

In the 1980s, he played in an avant-garde rock group called Cassiber. The musicians never rehearsed before a performance, but instead made a collection of sounds and recording fragments of their favorite musical pieces and improvised with them. The playwright brings these same abrasive principles to his theater, which combines separate and not always harmonizing elements. With each play, he builds his theatrical language from scratch.

From 2012-2014, Goebbels was the artistic director of the Ruhrtriennale international arts festival in northwestern Germany. In his leadership of Ruhrtriennale, Goebbles staged performances of John Cage's "Europeras," Harry Partch's "Delusion of the Fury," and Louis Andriessen's opera "De Materie" — all of which took place in post-industrial settings.

Goebbels as a director is interested in the birth of the moment, the living essence of "now." In his work, Goebbels explores what can be accomplished in a second. In "Eraritjaritjaka," a second is enough time for actor André Wilms to be shown leaving the theater on film that is synchronized to music. Wilms proceeds to read a script by Elias Canetti on the ability of the individual to transform, and on the fluidity of the world — things which the aborigines remember. In "When the Mountain Changed its Clothing", Goebbels seems to have been interested in the "Bulgarian second" — an interval increase of one second found in the sacred music of the peoples of 7th–8th century Bulgaria — which manifests itself as slightly delayed reactions and movements in the choir singers.

Goebbels's plays are almost a laboratory of time, in which birth, magic and art are all possible. "Max Black" takes the laboratory analogy a step further. It is based on material from the notebooks of scientists, namely Max Black himself, who was born in Baku in 1908, when the city was still part of the Russian empire. Goebbels also incorporates the work of Paul Valéry, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, a mathematician and Max Black's teacher at Cambridge whose love of philosophy strongly influenced Black.

In all his work, Goebbels wants to induce the audience into active participation, to involve them in the birth of image and association. He says he sees the job of a director and composer as a balancing act between being a member of the theatrical team and also as being part of a thoughtful audience — specifically, part of an audience full of people who have come to the conclusion that there's no reason their intellect should be excluded from the realm of the play. Goebbels believes it is important to create a space for the audience to interpret the material for themselves. "Who are we to be told how to think?" he says. Goebbels wants to create a new reality in the "here and now," together with the audience.

In "Eraritjaritjaka", the main character cooks himself an omelette and eats it, while describing what the audience should observe in how he eats. "Max Black" works from a similar concept, except that this time, the omelette can be made 61 other ways.

"Max Black, or 62 Ways of Supporting the Head with a Hand," will be performed Oct. 7,9,10 and 11 at the Stanislavsky Electrotheater, 23 Tverskaya Street.

Russia - Germany 2015
Russia - Germany 2015
Despite the difficult political climate and economic downturn, German companies remain committed to Russia. Read about the challenges facing them, as well as success stories in this supplement.
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