Truer words have never been spoken by any character. Maria Braun’s straightforward declaration is the essence of Robert McNamara’s The Marriage of Maria Braun at SCENA Theatre, based on the 1979 German cult film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and adapted for stage by Peter Marthesheimer & Pea Frohlich.
Marriage, one of Fassbinder’s most famous works, embodies the type of thematically powerful film he was controversial – but widely praised – for in his short life. Set in the backdrop of post-WWII Germany from 1945 – 1954, the play deals with the big themes of love, betrayal, violence, ostracism, and a deep yearning for happiness as we follow central character Maria Braun, a young German wife, as she deals with the personal repercussions of WWII and the unfamiliar landscape of post-war New Germany.
SCENA’s production utilizes an intimate staging approach designed by Michael C. Stepowany, one that may be initially surprising, but is actually extremely effective. There are only ten actors involved in the production, but over 35 unique roles; the actors smartly switch between different personas from scene to scene as needed. The stage is level with the audience seats; there is no backstage. Instead, actors, once off scene, move to the wings of the stage where they change costumes and/or prepare props while in full view of the audience. The stage itself is comprised of two small settings opposite one another – each representing Maria’s house and workplace, while cleverly placed low platforms in the middle are used for all other schematic needs. The most critical piece to the scene – a projector screen that serves as the backdrop – cleverly displays both pictures and text, English and German, to indicate scene changes, the direction of the play, and general ambiance setting.
To further enhance the scenes, Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows’ choice of harsh lighting and the use of spotlights helps both transition the scenes between Maria’s soliloquys as well as sets the stage’s tone of hard times and violence – and never lets the audience forget the play’s setting of post-war Germany. Sound Designer Denise R. Rose utilizes computerized noises to transition in the various scenes, such as creating clanking and background chatter for the prison scenes, and slow jazzy music for the bar scenes. Overall, the production values are high, the production staging is quite technologically advanced, and the space is utilized cleverly to serve the play’s purpose to the highest degree,
Despite the strong acting power, the production does – at times – suffer from some slow pacing. Perhaps the pace is inherent in the subject matter, for it does cover ten years of Maria’s life – but transitions between scenes are slow and unnecessarily long. The last third of the play, especially, seems to feel unrelentingly slow-paced to the point where one is unsure how much time as passed in the timeline of the story – but it does provide the shocking final scene with an even greater impact than it inherently packs.
We are first introduced to the young, beautiful, and blonde Maria (Nanna Ingvarsson) on her wedding day as she is married to a German soldier called Hermann Braun (Doug Krehbel), in the days just preceding the war. They share but a day and a night together before he is shipped off to the front. Fast forward several years, and we next see Maria and her mother (Emily Morrison) in their bomb-torn flat in 1945, just after the Allied victory. With them is Maria’s close friend Frau Emhke (Karin Rosnizeck), whose beau Willi (Armand Sindoni) returns from the war with news that Hermann was killed in action. Maria mourns in her own way, but soon after, Hermann returns to her, alive, but is almost immediately jailed.
Throughout the time that they are separated, Maria remains steadfastly loyal to Hermann in her heart, vowing to work to save up money for their future together. She becomes ambitious in her work, rising quickly through the ranks of a textile company, all the while seducing and taking as lovers the American GI Sgt. Bill (Theodore M. Snead) and her employer, the older Herr Oswald (Lee Ordeman), both of whom she treats with little care, coldness, and almost disdain despite the number of years she remains with each. But it is always Hermann that she will return to, and their extended separation for many years post-war creates a unyielding ruthlessness in her personality, but ultimately leads to the belated discovery of her true self.
Ingvarsson is masterful in her portrayal of the ambitious and ruthless Maria. Indeed, the character’s use and disposal of the men around her, and her seemingly illogical actions, are baffling to the audience. But Ingvarsson is also able to capture the critical dichotomy that is Maria – a woman doing what she can and what she must to navigate a man’s world and adapt quickly in this new society. And although Maria’s unwavering loyalty to her husband of one day, Hermann, becomes incomprehensible and even twisted, the deeper impact is the realization that Maria is but a metaphor for Germany itself.
The supporting characters of Hermann, Sgt. Bill, and Oswald have similarly talented acting power behind them. Doug Krehbel, Theodore M. Snead, and Lee Ordeman all have remarkable chemistry with Ms. Invgarsson, and each man’s plight and relationship with Maria is portrayed with accurate and believable emotion.
Actor Kim Curtis provided a pleasant comedic relief in multiple roles – as Maria’s senile old grandfather, and as Herr Senkenberg, Maria and Herr Oswald’s coworker who spends his time on stage expounding exasperations about the firm’s financial situation. Emily Morrison as Maria’s mother, though a supporting role, represents Maria’s home life away from her ambition, work, and men. Morrison’s mother character is memorable in her own right, especially in the funny scene where she surprises her family with an elderly gentleman beau.
Similarly, Betti (Karin Rosnizeck) is a person from Maria’s “old life” – so to speak – whose complaints about her homely and uneventful life with husband Willi (Sindoni) are clearly juxtaposed to Maria’s complicated romantic entanglements and emotional fluctuations. Willi, a working man and union representative, himself plays a recurring role in Maria’s life – the two share a comforting and understanding friendship that lasts through Maria’s long and tenuous affair with Herr Oswald. Both Rosnizeck and Sindoni as Betti and Willi, respectively, successfully play the sympathetic friends that provide a the crucial glimpse into Maria’s relationship with her friends and family, and whose conversations with Maria about her situations counterbalance her private soliloquies.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and forty minutes, with no intermission.
The Marriage of Maria Braun plays through October 11, 2013 at ATLAS Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993, or purchase them online here.