Acme Corporation’s Kaspar updates Peter Handke’s play for the digital age by Bret McCabe

The deeper justification for the use of the linguistic model or metaphor must, I think, be sought elsewhere outside the claims and counterclaims for scientific validity or technological progress. It lies in the concrete character of the social life of the so-called advanced countries today, which offer the spectacle of a world from which nature as such has been eliminated, a world saturated with messages and information, whose intricate commodity network may be seen as the very prototype of a system of signs. There is therefore a profound consonance between linguistics as a method and that systematized and disembodied nightmare which is our culture today.

Frederic Jameson, The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1972)

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Acme Corporation’s production of Kaspar intentionally disorients you from the moment you enter the theater. It’s presented in the kinda circular Great Hall on the second floor of St. Mark’s Lutheran Evangelical Church, and entering the space feels like you’ve wandered into a quickly assembled remote television setup. Seats are placed along a semicircle just inside the entrance, a smattering on the floor to the left, a bit more on built-in steps that double as risers to the right. Practically everything in the performance area—a rocking chair, two other chairs, a table, a couch, a radio, two flat screen monitors, a foliage-free tree—is painted matte white, as if Estragon and Vladimir decided to decorate while waiting for Godot. Spoons suspended by strings from the ceiling form a silvery constellation above this area. And what eventually draws the eyes the strongest is a bouquet of microphones placed directly in front of the very first row, making it feel like we’ve all gathered for an important announcement.

In a sense, we are. Peter Handke’s Kaspar treats the story of Kaspar Hauser, the ostensible feral foundling who wandered into the German town of Nuremberg in 1828, as a narrative readymade for a formal investigation of language as an instrument of control. Language is that abstract, creative adaptation that enables us to process reality and communicate with each other about it, but learning how to do so becomes a descriptive grammar of how to exist properly. Forget big brother: language is the original thought police.

Kaspar articulates this argument through its titular character (Sophie Hinderberger), who enters the play as if born from actual darkness. When the lights go down at the play’s start, an overheard key light throws a solitary column of illumination in front of a dark recess at the back of the room. Soon, hands each stretch into the light, followed closely by a shocking weed of hair, then a torso, and then the entire figure bent at the waist as if in back-spasm pain. She struggles forward as if it requires every ounce of concentration, stumbling over the tangle of cables running from the microphones. White tape runs across her face. She wears the disheveled off-white garb of a transient. And by the time she stiffly rights herself into a standing position, you’re wondering if this is the production of that avant-garde play from the late 1960s you’ve paid to see or if you and everybody else has been duped into being victims of that scary-ass wraith who crawls out of the TV set in Ringu.

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And then, she speaks, a single sentence: “I want to be a person like somebody else was once.” She repeats it, over and over and over, in different inflections and cadences, at varying volume levels, and at with different results. It sounds like a question. It sounds like a command. It sounds like a demand. It sounds like a plea. And by the tenth or fifteenth time—in my notes, I apparently stopped counting the number of times Hinderberger repeats the sentence at 28—it becomes clear the woman really doesn’t have any idea what she’s saying. It’s all noise, a child or a puppy yapping away as much as possibly simply because it discovered that it could.

Over the course of the roughly hour-long first act, however, this woman will learn not only the meaning of what she’s saying, but how things correspond to words and how words can be used to express something going on inside the brain. What helps her learn such things are a series of informative statements that appear to her as YouTube videos, television programs, newscasts, commercials, a movie trailer, exercise video, and radio broadcasts. What the people in these vignettes say is blankly instructional, as if it appears in a manual for a machine written by committee. It’s dispassionately in the third person or in a tutorial second person. These pieces convey information about sentences, words, what they do, how they go together, what can be done with them once such things are understood. And by listening and talking, the first act explores the woman’s coming into linguistic consciousness.

As directed and conceived by Lola Pierson, Acme’s Kaspar is quite faithful to Handke’s demanding formal constraints, and the tweaks Pierson introduces not only update its aims but introduce new ripples. In the script the voices offering language instruction come from offstage prompters. Pierson casts such omnipresent tutors into the televisual media that wallpaper our lives, those aforementioned YouTube videos, television programs, newscasts, commercials, a movie trailer, exercise video, and radio broadcasts (and starring and made by a who’s who of the local performing arts community). It’s a thrillingly chilling gambit, recognizing that the things we consume as entertainment, distractions, and mere day-to-day and moment-by-moment information also shapes and influences how we talk, how we communicate with and interact with each other, and how we understand the world in which we live.

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By realizing the prompters as different aspects of mass media, Pierson makes the play’s political implications much more cutting, and by casting Hinderberger in the title role—and three more actresses (Sam Nelson, Rena Brault, Naomi Kline) as different versions of the title character in the second act—the addition of gender to this crucible gives the production a razor-sharp edge. As written Handke’s Kaspar is less male character than flat creature, almost as if he was toying with a type (“Kasper” is a German word for clown and the male namesake of those stock 16th-century puppetry performances called Punch and Judy shows).

Over the course of the first act Pierson’s Kaspar, though Hindergberger’s character is never so identified in the dialog of the play itself, morphs from the creature from the black void into a woman. She pulls her hair back into a pony tail. She cleans up her appearance, buttoning up her shirt properly, straitening sleeves out, tidily tying her shoes. As her language capabilities become more civilized so does her appearance, so much so that at the start of the second act, Hinderberger appears smartly attired in a fitted white skirt and shirt, hair styled, poised and confident, as if she’s about to launch into a TED talk.

In a sense, she does. Kaspar‘s first act plots the character’s mastery of language; the second unfurls language’s mastery of her at her expense. The centerpiece of the act is Hinderberger’s tour-de-force performance of a monologue-ish stretch, wherein she steps to the mircophone bouquet. Specific dialog lines are delivered into specific microphones in different intonations and inflections, and she repeats the familiar “I want to be a person like somebody else was once” at different intervals. This time she knows exactly what she’s saying, and the more she speaks the more she stops making sense. It’s a gorgeously discomforting articulation that membership in civilized society has come at the splintering of self.

And Pierson’s attention to tapping into that apprehensive tension running through the play is what lodges it in the brain once you leave the theater. Handke wrote the play in 1967 (here’s a 1973 NYT Review), and another postwar German artist tackled the Kaspar Hauser story in 1974. Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser takes a much more lyrical approach to the story, but a literal translation of its original German title reveals Herzog’s political concerns here: “Every Man for Himself and God Against All.” Acme’s Kaspar drives the dour anxiety contained in that title home, leaving you wondering how much of what makes us the self-appointed highest animal might also undermine that which makes us human.

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Kaspar by Peter Handke is being performed June 5-June 20th. Go to Acme Corporation’s website for tickets.

Author Bret McCabe is a haphazard tweeter, epic-fail blogger, and a Baltimore-based arts and culture writer.