Austria’s current political situation is scathingly portrayed in Gutmenschen.
Tragedy need not be spectacular; sometimes all it takes to tear a life apart is a single letter. Gutmenschen, a new play by the Volkstheater ensemble and the Israeli born, award-winning director Yael Ronen, illustrates that with great humor and yet still manages to touch. Named after a derogatory German term for politically correct do-gooders, Gutmenschen straddles reality and fiction, channeling real stories through fictional characters to address current socio-political issues with caustic wit. Inspired by ensemble member Seyneb Saleh and her cousin Yousef, a refugee from Iraq, Ronen is unafraid to address controversy with laughter. Where so many fail, she succeeds.
Performed in German, the English surtitles are clearly visible and easy to read, allowing Anglophones to enjoy the play – even if some of the cultural context might go over their heads. Maryam (Birgit Stöger, a fictionalized stand-in for Saleh), a lifestyle blogger and single mother of two, has just agreed to appear on Red Bull’s ServusTV as the protagonist of the reality show Gutmenschen, her new sponsor decking out her entire apartment and her clothes in Red Bull’s corporate colors blue and red. As more and more members of Maryam’s unusual family appear, current political issues like rightwing policies, same-sex marriage, the canceled smoking ban and racism are addressed; yet the proverbial elephant in the room remains Maryam’s cousin Yousef, whose asylum application was rejected. While Maryam’s family and friends bicker endlessly, they all desperately want to prevent his deportation.
Do-Gooding Gives You Wings
The characters are all strong and almost stereotypical: The overstrained, liberal, slightly selfish mother; Klara, a sexually open-minded singer and her deceptively mild-mannered boyfriend Elias; Maryam’s gay friend Schnute, father of one of her children, his boyfriend Moritz and Schnute’s ultraconservative, racist mother. Like every good reality show, these diverse personalities lead to instant conflict, effectively framing issues with proponents and detractors. The arguments are exaggerated for comedic effect, yet the archetypal characters remain believable throughout.
When the tomboyish Klara presented her latest song, a parody of a Hubert von Goisern hit, the audience laughed when she got to the chorus “Du bist so weit, weit rechts…”(You are so far, far right…). But as the lyrics started to address Austrian politics, the chuckles died down as the seriousness became tangible.
At the very end, Yousef himself appeared on stage, walking around for thirty seconds without saying anything as he’s barred from working in Austria – a stark reminder of the restrictions put upon refugees. Seeing the real-life impetus for the plot in the flesh was very touching, and Yousef’s appearance brought reality even closer. The delight of the audience was palpable by the long and exuberant applause at the premiere.
Treating serious subjects with levity is fraught with danger – especially in front of an audience of touchy Gutmenschen. And indeed, Ronen’s play is a tightrope act – blunt at times and bordering on cabaret, but making it safely to the end.
Mar 7, 9, 15, 19 & 25, Volkstheater. 7., Arthur-Schnitzler-Platz 1. volkstheater.at