Review: ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’ at The Kennedy Center

Obsessional unrequited love is what prompts Petra von Kant’s bitter tears in the 1972 German film by Rainier Werner Fassbinder. The movie is a languid immersion in the self-absorption of a semi-successful fashion designer who falls disconsolately for a young gold-digging model named Karin. Meanwhile, Petra has a servile personal assistant named Marlene whom she treats imperiously, knowing full well that Marlene harbors a repressed passion for her.

Fassbinder is said to have written the film Petra, and the 1971 play on which it is based, on the heels of his own unhealed infatuation. Fassbinder had fallen hard for a young black Bavarian actor who had figured out how to lovelessly push Fassbinder’s sugar daddy buttons. In Fassbinder’s loosely autobiographical film, all six characters are women played by women dressed to the nines. Petra is as much an art movie as a fashion show. And the film is a classic gay male transliteration of a closety male-male drama into a usurped lesbian vocabulary.

Yanier Palmero (kneeling) as Marlene and Fernando Hechavarria as Petra in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Photo courtesy of Teatro El Público.

Kennedy Center’s Artes de Cuba has imported a Spanish-language stage production of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant directed by Carlos Díaz, founder of Havana’s Teatro El Público. Authorship is credited to Fassbinder, but in Díaz’s conception, four of the six women characters are played by male actors: Fernando Hechavarria as prima donna Petra, Yanier Palmero as put-upon servant Marlene, Roberto Romero as Petra’s catty friend Sidonie, and Luis Manuel Alvarez as finagling ingenue Karin. (Petra’s daughter Gaby and mother Valerie are played straight, so to speak, by Alicia Hechavarría and Clara García.)

Fassbinder, who died in 1982, was not around to object (as did also-gay Edward Albee, who famously forbade all-male productions of Who’s Afraid…?). So here we have in the Kennedy Center Family Theater a gay-male narrative about boy-toy betrayal that got dressed up in women’s clothes and is now out of the closet as an homage to drag.

Um, what?

The result is an eye-filling, over-the-top melodrama that is never quite funny enough to be a comedy and never quite genuine enough to be a tragedy. Instead, it plays somewhere in the self-mocking, maudlin, and muddled middle, as though some Ru Paul also-rans had said, “Let’s put on a play.”

The production is indeed fun to watch. Set Designer Roberto Ramos Mori imagines von Kant’s bedroom atelier decked out in couture, wigs, haberdashery, and studio lights focused on a big white bed, whereupon much lolling and writhing transpire. Light Designer Carlos Repilado over-augments mood shifts so we can’t miss ’em and nicely makes the auditorium’s side walkways part of the show. And the costumes (inexplicably uncredited) are a fashionista’s fantasia. In the film Petra changes her wig three times; here she dons more than a half dozen whole outfits, as though the play might well be about someone who strangely can’t stop changing clothes.

Yanier Palmero as Marlene and Fernando Hechavarria as Petra in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Photo by Waldek Zelazewski.

Director Díaz sets a brisk pace and introduces sight gags galore: at one point, for instance, Karin and Marlene are both on their back with their legs bicycling in the air, for no apparent reason except it gets a laugh. The telephone, which rings garishly loud and often, is handled nimbly as a silly prop. Whether one can put up with Hechavarria’s incessant histrionics as Petra will be a matter of personal taste, but there’s a manic freakout scene when Petra in high dudgeon starts throwing booze bottles about, and it’s the kind of horrifying that can be hilarious.

For anyone reliant on the supertitles, as was I, they go by so faintly and fast one necessarily misses some of the show’s delights. Nevertheless one gets the distinct impression this was intended as a zippy-campy live-action cartoon befitting someone certifiably crazy in love—and on that it delivers.

Running Time: One hour 35 minutes, with no intermission.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant plays one more performance tonight, May 17, 2018, at Teatro El Público performing at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC, as part of the Artes de Cuba festival, which runs to June 3, 2018.

For tickets to upcoming events, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or Toll-Free: (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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