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As European films go, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1971) didn't set the cinema world aflame. But it did spark a cult following that grew more heated when Fassbinder himself adapted the film into a 1973 play of the same title. That play, which must have seemed a melodramatic shocker more than a quarter century ago, now comes across as an intriguing, theatrical high-wire act that teeters between high-voltage emotion and camp.

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is the story of a sophisticated fashion designer (Petra) who, after the end of her marriage, finds herself enraptured by a beautiful, lower-class, bisexual woman (Karin). The two become lovers and Petra wastes no time turning her young, empty-headed bed partner into a star fashion model. Then Karin promptly drops her mentor, engulfing Petra in the worst case of angst since King Kong lost Fay Wray. Throughout all this, Petra's extraordinarily devoted maid, Marlene, hovers like a demented pixie, anticipating her mistress' every wish and desire. Though Marlene doesn't speak, she is ultimately the most fascinating and commanding character on the stage.

In a translation by Denis Calandra--reworked by Barbara Sauermann in collaboration with the play's director, Ian Belton--the play effectively captures the fevered pitch of obsessive romance as well as the shattering, convulsive pain of rejection. It isn't about very much more than that, however, which means that its dramatic arc is simple to an extreme. But "extreme" is the play's mantra. The acting is purposefully directed to be HUGE! By way of comparison, the two female leads, Petra (Rebecca Wisocky) and Marlene (Anita Durst) make the performances of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? seem minimalist. When Marlene allows herself to become a table upon which Petra and Karin can eat during their first date, you know you've arrived in kinkyville. The relationship between Petra and Marlene is like a DNA molecule: All the elements that make them who they are revolve around these characters in a complex structure of give (Marlene) and take (Petra). The result is funny and oddly touching at the same time.

The rest of the cast is not up to the standard set by Wisocky and Durst. Tami Dixon is the shortest fashion model this side of Munchkinland, and her sullen-sex-object performance as Karin is not terribly convincing. However, in the dual role of Petra's daughter, Dixon displays a bit more comic flair. Rosalyn Coleman as Petra's rich friend Sidonie overacts without the charm of her co-stars, while Joy Franz makes little impact as Petra's mother. Despite these lesser performances and the play's built-in limitations, the proceedings are given an undeniable sheen by Ian Belton's creative staging, Jeff Cowie's kicky scenic design, and Greco's witty costumes. The production is further enhanced by its location: the sensually seedy Henry Miller's Theatre, where the hit revival of Cabaret had its initial run. The air of decadence here, both on and off the stage, absolutely adds to the atmosphere of the play.

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is fascinating despite the fact that it is less than the sum of its parts, because some of its parts are exceptional.

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