Friday, May 10, 2013

Theater Review: In a Year With 13 Moons

Mickey Solis and Bill Camp. Photo © Richard Termine
Yale Rep’s In a Year With 13 Moons Puzzles Audience – and Critic
By Lauren Yarger
As a critic, my first obligation is to be honest, so my readers will trust me when reporting on my experiences in the theater. After seeing the world premiere of In a Year With 13 Moons at Yale Rep, I have to tell you the truth. I didn’t get it. 

I have no idea what is about, really, even with the aid of the script, so if you are looking for expert analysis on this one, I need to refer you to another source who appreciates absurdist, existential theater. This play might be great for those of you who love this type of theater, but it’s completely lost on me.

In an effort to shed some light on the experience, however, I will tell you what I can and offer, in italics, what I was thinking at various points during the presentation. Then I’ll bring you a report of what the ladies in line in the restroom had to say after the show. These comments really are more insightful than any attempt at analysis I could provide.

Commissioned by Yale Rep In a Year With 13 Moons is adapted for the stage by its star, Bill Camp, and Director Robert Woodruff, who previously teamed on Notes From Underground at Yale Rep (the film and screenplay are by Rainer Werner Fassbinder; the literal translation is by Louisa Proske). Set in 1978 Frankfurt, it tells the story of Erwin (Camp) who had an operation in Casablanca and who is now Elvira. “Now, adrift and alone, Elvira resists the people and places of the past, desperately searching for the identity and love she’s never known.” That synopsis is thanks to Yale’s Senior Associate Director of Communications Steven Padia, which I never would have been able to come up with myself. I’ll add that the whole of the action is leading up to Elvira’s suicide and is very depressing.  

Lauren’s thoughts: They paid for this?

My brain, you see, had started to shut down (self defense, you know) after the opening scenes in which a man making out with Elvira discovers her breasts and is disgusted. He and a bunch of people beat her up and with her pants down, Elvira crawls around the stage while reciting prose that makes no sense. Meanwhile another woman appears on a platform with her legs up and open for another man’s sexual pleasure. Elvira chokes herself while masturbating. Her abusive lover Christoph (Babs Olusanmokun) beats her and tells her she is repulsive and ugly as a pig. He tells her he is leaving her.

“I’m getting out,” he says.

Lauren’s thoughts: Please take me with you.

There’s a reason why they don’t put intermissions in existential shows like this: given a chance to flee, most of the audience will. The ploy wasn’t enough to stop a number of people from getting up and walking out during the play, however.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, the absurd story started to strike me funny. Elvira used to be a slaughterer, by trade, and hopes to find a job in that field. Suddenly we’re in the slaughterhouse and a man covered in blood walks slowly across the stage carrying a dead pig person (a human in an oversized pig head). As dialogue continues, other blood-covered people carry or drag pig persons across the stage until a blood-covered man carries out a bloody dead man, rather than a pigman (with some sort of great significance, I’m sure).

Lauren’s thoughts: Holding in this burst of laughter is really starting to hurt my sides. If I start, I won’t be able to stop.

All of this action takes place on David Zinn’s dim set (Jennifer Tipton designs the lighting) enhanced by video projections (Peter Nigrini, design) and musical notes, noises and bursts played by composer Michael Attias, who also designs the show’s sound, and one other musician in the pit.

There are a number of people Elvira encounters along the way: Irene and Marie-Ann, his former wife, and their daughter (Jacqueline Kim, who provides a much-needed dose of beauty, and Mariko Nakasone), Anton Saitz (Christopher Innvar), a former lover/Mafioso type for whom Elvira originally had her radical surgery, and Sister Gundrun (Joan MacIntosh), a nun at the orphanage where Erwin was raised. He seeks her out to fill in the blanks from the childhood he can’t remember. She starts with his birth and tells the long story while walking very, very, very very slowly around the perimeter of the stage….

Lauren’s thoughts: My watch must have stopped. There’s no way that we’re only just an hour in (the show is two hours and 10 minutes).

I’ll leave the plot description at that, except to say that there is a suicide (not even Elvira’s), a gruesome bedtime story, a shootout, and a concentration camp theme. And let’s not forget the chorus line (David Neumann, choreography).

Lauren’s thoughts: Please make it stop! Here’s two hours of my life I’m never going to get back.
When the play finally concluded to the softest applause I’ve ever heard, the woman in front of me, with a very troubled expression, turned to her companion and said, “We need to find a place where I can get a drink.” A man behind me asked his companion whether she would like to stay for the talkback taking place.

“Yes. Maybe I’ll find out what it was about.” 

As I closed my notebook, I noticed that it was almost completely full of notes, but I still didn’t have a clue what to say in this review. I headed to the restroom. There, conversation centered on the play and I whipped my notebook back out, identifying myself as a critic interested in their thoughts, asking for insight into what I had missed. Women gave up their place in line eager for an opportunity to vent.

“I’m university educated,” said one woman, but I have no idea what that was about.”

“Maybe if we watch the film it will clear things up,” another suggested.

“It made no sense.”

“Very unpleasant to watch.”

“That poor girl under the guy for so long much have been uncomfortable.”

Another woman, a theater educator, praised the efforts of the actors. Another gave Yale kudos for being willing to take risk, “but you have to give the audience something to work with,” she added.

Our favorite: a woman joining the queue who heard us discussing the play who asked, “Was this written by him before he died?”

There was a lot of laughter in the bathroom.

“This is probably better than the talkback taking place upstairs,” said one woman wiping away tears.

Lauren’s thoughts: Marie Antoinette, Dear Elizabeth and Hamlet (presented earlier this season at Yale) were so good, I’ll forgive them for this one.

In a Year With 13 Moons runs at Yale Rep, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven, through May 18. Showtimes vary. Tickets $20-$96 :(203) 432-1234;

Note: Yale warns that the show is for mature audiences and that is contains strong language, sexual situations, nudity and violence. For production footage and a three-part series of short interviews with the cast, visit:

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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