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Sharp Turns

What a difference a day makes. On September 10, we were still living in the 20th century. That illusion ended with the cataclysmic events of September 11, which violently thrust us into the realpolitik of the new millennium. By September 12, while Broadway and off-Broadway understandably shut down for a few days, stage venues on our coast went into soul-searching mode. The Ahmanson Theater couldn‘t stomach the idea of a celebratory press opening of Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man, scheduled for the day after the attacks, so the official American opening of the British star‘s latest dance spectacle was pushed back four days. Zoo District delayed the opening of its minstrel comedy Uppa Creek one week. The press rep for Santa Monica’s City Garage reported that the producers of Frederick of PrussiaGeorge W‘s Dream of Sleep went into something of a crisis over the issue of whether to temporarily suspend their play -- so mocking of the president and blatantly critical of America’s consumerist empire -- in the context of a nation suddenly being at war. And at Hollywood‘s Theater of NOTE, Clyt at Home: The Clytemnestra Project (see accompanying review) presented a quandary for the company, with its depiction of the Furies jocularly singing and dancing to the tune of the Trojan War, of boxed corpses returning in ever-increasing numbers from the battlefield. What had been a mildly campy amusement on September 10 felt considerably less amusing on September 11.

Meanwhile, shooting-star German playwright Moritz Rinke -- making his American debut at the Odyssey Theater with a 3-year-old play entitled The Man Who Never Yet Saw Woman’s Nakedness -- was supposed to return to Berlin this week but found himself temporarily stranded in the New World, thanks to the airport closings. Evidently with more time here than he had planned or hoped for, he composed a letter -- now posted at the theater -- to future audiences of his play, explaining how although scenes in his play-within-a-play allude to an apocalypse outside the theater in which The Man takes place, his work had in no way been shaped or revised by the devastation of September 11, that both he and the Odyssey management had chosen not to tamper with the text.

Rinke was concerned, with good reason, that his play was so prophetic that it might be misunderstood as having been manipulated to exploit the disasters: When the “man” of the title, Helmbrecht (Keir O‘Donnell), arrives in a theater dressing room -- more or less an open space, delineated by a row of five refrigerators on one side and the backs of tall bracketed flats on the other (set by Maria Bahra) -- his helmet and body suit (costumes by Kristine Upesleja) caked in concrete dust conjure up far too many recently televised images.

Like Simone de Beauvoir’s time traveler in All Men Are Mortal, Helmbrecht has been spared mortality, though that may be a curse, given that -- in terms of history‘s horrors -- he’s seen it all, from the Crusades to the trenches of World War I. Here he‘s landed in a contemporary theater, where Felix (Michael Don Evans) is preparing a production of Romeo and Juliet against the backdrop of a city -- and a world -- in collapse. (At strategic moments, sound designer Tim Aaron lets us hear the crunching and rumbling of sidewalks plunging into an abyss.) Enter Anna (Lindsay Beamish), who is supposed to play Juliet, though her Romeo is nowhere to be found. Which lands Helmbrecht the role of a romantic in a skeptical age, and gives the play a triangle of jealousy.

Where Act 1 consists of extended scenes, by Act 2 Rinke is serving up blasts of truncated dialogue, delicately held together by Meredith Oakes’ smooth, colloquial translation, by the stylistic unity of the excellent cast and by director Amelie Niermeyer‘s visual flair: glittering snow that trickles down from the roof, for example, or videos in which doves that float on the walls are replaced by static.

The night I saw this play, I judged Rinke’s apocalyptic vision somewhat naive -- the unearned cynicism of a young European writer. That was before September 11.