German Group Pushes Boundaries of Theater, Actors In Berlin's vibrant theater scene, Ramba Zamba stands out. The group interprets and adapts classic stories with daring costumes, modern music and no shortage of sex and violence. Most surprising are the actors: Almost all are mentally disabled.
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German Group Pushes Boundaries of Theater, Actors

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German Group Pushes Boundaries of Theater, Actors

German Group Pushes Boundaries of Theater, Actors

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In Germany, echoes of past wrongs are felt in Berlin's vibrant arts scene. The theater troupe Ramba Zamba interprets and adapts classic stories like Medea or Kafka's Metamorphosis. Performances feature daring costumes, modern music, edgy choreography, and no shortage of sex and violence. What are most surprising, though, are the actors. Almost all are mentally disabled. From Berlin, Susan Stone reports.

SUSAN STONE: Ramba Zamba is not feel good theater. It's more like feel weird theater. Take, for example, the recent staging of Georg Buchner's 1838 social critique, "Woyzeck." It's about an impoverished solider who is everyone's stooge. Murder, madness and manipulation are the themes. It's not a play for beginners, though it can be funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STONE: The actor playing anti-hero Woyzeck is running around the stage trying to convince audience members to eat a can of peas for him. He gets no takers; then he's caught by a frightening doctor.

(Soundbite of "Woyzeck")

STONE: The doctor reminds Woyzeck of the contract he signed binding him to a series of bizarre medical experiments. Eventually Woyzeck goes mad and murders his wife. The theater seats are set up in a ring with the open floor space becoming a stage. At times a little too close for comfort.

(Soundbite of "Woyzeck")

STONE: Blurring the borders between audience and actors, between what's seen as acceptable behavior and not, is exactly what theater director Klaus Erforth had in mind when he chose to stage this particular play.

Mr. KLAUS ERFORTH (Theater Director): (Through translator) What was clear to me from the start was that our actors could give this play a special sense because they are so much in the play that was taboo at the time it was written, but also is today. The whole question of bodily love with another. They like to play this because it's part of their deepest desires. To have a husband, to be able to go to bed with a man, to have relevance, to have warmth.

STONE: Seeing people with Down Syndrome or cognitive disabilities in wild makeup, acting in funny and disturbing scenes, raises the question of whether the actors might be exploited, until you talk to some of them.

Hannes Janke, who is 45, has been acting with the company since 1994. He survived a brain tumor as a child, which left him with severe epilepsy and diminished his mental capabilities. With some work, he memorizes lines and performs onstage. He says Ramba Zamba is an important part of his life.

Mr. HANNES JANKE (Actor): (Through translator) The theater for me is everything. I would definitely miss something if this theater lost its funding and disappeared. We mentally disabled people find something here in the theater. Without this theater, we would be sitting on the street. We are attached to this theater with body and soul. It's our theater, and we are proud of this theater.

STONE: Ramba Zamba's plays can be long. The performance is inconsistent and intense, and sometimes the actors are hard to understand. Audience members often sneak out. Perhaps it's the loud music, the experimental staging, or scenes of bloodshed, simulated orgy, or birth. Or maybe seeing disabled actors in these roles makes people uncomfortable, because it's not what they're used to seeing on stage.

Mr. WARREN ROSENBLUM (Historian): I think the first and most important thing to say about Ramba Zamba is that this is good theater.

STONE: Warren Rosenblum is an expert in modern German history. He sees references in Ramba Zamba's work to Germany's grim history under National Socialism, when it's estimated that hundreds of thousands of disabled people were considered worthless and killed.

Last month brought a grim reminder of this. A mass grave was found in western Germany. The bodies are thought to include disabled children and adults killed during the Nazi era. It's hard to hide from this history in Germany, but it's also hard to face it.

Mr. ROSENBLUM: What Ramba Zamba does is they address that history. I think it would be a jolting theater in any environment. It's the kind of theater that at points can really make you squirm, and certainly it's theater that makes you think, but it's especially poignant in the context of Germany because of this history.

STONE: Issues like eugenics, cloning, and a future full of designer babies can be found in the Ramba Zamba play "Mongopolis." In one funny yet chilling scene, couples in a doctor's waiting room are eager to trade in their flawed babies for better ones.

(Soundbite of "Mongopolis")

STONE: I didn't like the color.

Too expensive. Not what was expected.

One actor turns and demands at the audience: Are you satisfied with your children? It's a question that's close to home for Ramba Zamba co-director Gisela Hohne, who wrote the play. She and Klaus Erforth have a child with Down Syndrome who acts with the company. He was born in East Germany in 1976, when there was no support for his parents and no education for children like him. Today, things are better for people with disabilities, but the directors and actors are aware that these tensions still exist in German society.

Hohne thinks back to the group's rehearsal of a scene in Mongopolis. On stage, some characters are chosen to live and some to die.

Ms. GISELA HOHNE (Playwright): In that moment everything broke down. Some cried. They said they never want to live this situation. And I spoke very, very long with them, that it's not that now can people like in the fascism and say you're handicapped, you have to die. No. But they recognize that this all treated the possibility that people are selected. They understood. They also trusted me that we do a good job when we show this.

STONE: Ramba Zamba continues to challenge actors and theatergoers. Klaus ErfortH has just celebrated 50 years in the theater with an award from the mayor of Berlin. Gisela Hohne is finishing the script of a new play about refugees and global warming, and the actors, as always, are ready for their world, the stage.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Stone in Berlin.

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