‘Mr Kolpert’: O to be young and alienated

Third Rail Rep delivers the splendidly macabre comedy along with the pizza

Maybe we should look at German playwright David Gieselmann’s Mr. Kolpert as a period piece. One of the first plays that Third Rail Repertory Theatre wanted to do when it started in 2003, the play’s technical difficulties made it difficult to mount back then. The company has waited more than a decade to put it onstage, and now Mr. Kolpert finally receives a smart, deliciously evil production, with carefully blended performances from its cast under the direction of Scott Yarbrough.

The dinner party of Kelly Godell, left,   takes a turn when thumping comes from the trunk. Leif Norby investigates because Rolland Walsh is all tied up./Owen Carey

The dinner party of Kelly Godell, left, takes a turn when thumping comes from the trunk. Leif Norby investigates because Rolland Walsh is all tied up./Owen Carey

So, right, Mr. Kolpert was written at the end of the 1990s, as a tech bubble filled with air, and Western culture achieved something like Peak Vapidity. Or so we thought.

With vapidity came awareness of vapidity. And that awareness resulted in a generalized ennui, an emptiness. Then the bubble burst and we were saved from ourselves. Temporarily at least.

Sarah’s speech in Mr. Kolpert seems particularly late 1990s to me:

“Life was just going right over our heads. During the week there wasn’t time for anything except monthly subscriptions for savings club and pixelated Mona Lisas, then at weekends we’d go out and stare at a load of other people going out at the weekend. Ralf and I kept seeing people our age dancing, trying hard to pretend they’d just left school a few weeks ago and that emotions and all that stuff are just a bit of a laugh. But beneath all that they were really human beings. Then we realized we weren’t aware of emotions anymore either. All we wanted to do was feel something again. Feel human.”

We should note there’s no mention of smart phones, laptops, iPads, Facebook, texting, deluxe cable television packages or, alternately, cord-cutting for the wild and wooly of the complete internet experience—the full 21st century package. And still she had trouble feeling “human.” Sarah, darling, you know nothing about proper alienation!

This speech gives the wrong idea about Mr. Kolpert, unfortunately. It’s not a philosophical drama, at least not explicitly. It’s a dark comedy. Extreme alienation is so painful it hurts to laugh. And Sarah’s lines are really the only clear explanation of what’s going on, except for her boyfriend Ralf’s recurrent expressions of boredom.

Mr. Kolpert was written by Gieselmann when he was in his late 20s, and it has the energy of a young playwright, the delight in jokes and wordplay, and when things start to flag, he tosses something outrageous into the pot or on top of the pizza.

The dinner party of Kelly Godell, left,   takes a turn when thumping comes from the trunk. Leif Norby investigates because Rolland Walsh is all tied up./Owen Carey

The dinner party of Kelly Godell, left, takes a turn when thumping comes from the trunk. Leif Norby investigates because Rolland Walsh is all tied up./Owen Carey

Kelly Godell plays Sarah as a type, an office worker in her late 20s who is on edge, eye-battingly flirtatious, with a shrillness that undermines her efforts to seem knowing. Her red dress is a bit too short for company, isn’t it? And she sizes up Bastian, the husband of her co-worker Edith, a little too obviously, though that’s part of the fun she’s supposed to be having. So, right, the speech comes out of nowhere, really.

What IS going on? Sarah and Ralf (Rolland Walsh) are having Edith and Bastian over for dinner. Or rather take-out pizza. The evening starts with a gag: Ralf claims that he and Sarah have killed Mr. Kolpert, another coworker of Sarah’s, and stuffed him in a large trunk that serves as a coffee and dining room table in the living room. Ralf pushes the gag rather too far, at least for Bastian (Leif Norby), who isn’t one of the cool kids at all, though Edith (Stephanie Gaslin) gets into the spirit with a fiction of her own, sexual in her case.

No, Stephanie Gaslin isn't really Mr. Kolpert—she's Edith in Third Rail Rep's 'Mr. Kolpert'/Owen Carey

No, Stephanie Gaslin isn’t really Mr. Kolpert—she’s Edith in Third Rail Rep’s ‘Mr. Kolpert’/Owen Carey

The evening goes badly: The pizza order, of course, and Bastian’s violent impulses. And the joke about Mr. Kolbert goes on and on. And then things take a turn for the demented. This IS a black comedy, after all.

Walsh’s Ralf takes it all in bemused stride. Nothing seems to rattle him. Norby’s Bastian is appropriately beastly. And Galsin’s Edith is a bit torn: Is she part of the game Ralf and Sarah are playing or is she loyal to her beastly husband? Difficult choice. As a group, they create their own rhythm in the chaos. A paradox, you might say, and strangely, so does the play!

I’m purposely avoiding key plot points and the more bizarre events that happen during Mr. Kolpert’s 80 minutes or so of running time. This is a comedy, and letting you know the shtick before you see it is definitely a spoiler, even for me. I’ll just say that sometimes horror and humor go together hand in hand, and the audience my night were alternately aghast and amused, sometimes within seconds of each other.

Or maybe not “aghast.” Maybe we’re too knowing to reach “aghast” at a theater comedy these days? But something on the spectrum leading up to aghast, nonetheless.

I don’t think Mr. Kolpert describes our situation these days, at least not the details of it, which is why I brought up “period piece” in the beginning. Not that I think we’ve wandered very far from the underlying psychic condition Gieselmann sketches. Peak Vapidity and Peak Attention Disorder have a lot in common, it seems.

In this context, a nice bit of dark, Absurdist nonsense makes the best sense of all.

NOTES

David Tushingham’s English translation is very English, and the cast employ English accents accordingly. Imagining it with German accents instead of English somehow makes more sense to me, though.

Third Rail Rep’s Mr. Kolpert continues through February 27 at Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th Ave. Performances are at 7:30 pm Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays. It is intended for mature audiences.

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