By Marius von Mayenburg
Translated by Maja Zade
Directed by Joanie Schultz
Produced by Steep Theatre Company, Chicago.
Confused Story Sheds No Light on Budding Terrorist
In the notes to Martyr, the latest show at Steep, director Joanie Shultz reflects on what search for belonging lures Western teenagers to join ISIS. Unfortunately, German writer Marius von Mayenburg’s 2012 play, which is being produced for the first time in the United States, doesn’t have any answers to that. It depicts a German teenager’s descent into radical Christianity without exploring his character, and its story relies on exaggerated circumstances and absurd characters with little connection to reality.
Benjamin Südel (Brando Crawford) is the boy in question. He regards his mother, Inge (Cindy Marker) as an adulterer for having sexual relationships after getting divorced. At school, he insists on swimming fully clothed, because the display of other students’ flesh is sinful. His swimming teacher, Markus Dörflinger (Steve Schine) regards this as a bratty phase, while the biology teacher and Dörflinger’s girlfriend, Erika Roth (Kendra Thulin) is deeply disturbed. The ignorant, reactionary headmaster (Walter Brody) decides on a compromise, with all students being required to swim from now on in full-body suits, but Benjamin’s crusade is only just beginning.
Benjamin befriends Georg (Travis Coe), a boy with one leg shorter than the other, and a magnet for bullies. Delighted by the handsome Benjamin’s attention, Georg allows him to try faith-healing, and is enthralled by Benjamin’s increasingly violent and anti-Semitic proclamations. Benjamin declares his ultimate goal is to be martyred while preaching to Muslims, but until then, he’ll fight sin in his school. Frau Roth, meanwhile, develops her own obsession with the Bible as she hunts for arguments she can use in support of liberal values. With a headmaster and a religion teacher who are both far too diffident to Benjamin, and his mother useless and in denial, Frau Roth thinks it’s up to her to save Benjamin and the rest of the school from radicalism.
Brando Crawford is an excellent actor. In the early scenes, when Benjamin is still trying out his extremist persona, Crawford perfectly conveys his uncertainty by hunching over, blinking a lot, refusing eye contact, and deliberately using a shaky, reedy voice. As Benjamin’s confidence grows, Crawford launches into passionate sermons, and his movements become bold and aggressive. However, that naturalistic performance is at odds with the caricatures presented by the rest of the cast, raising the question of whether it really serves the play. Brody’s headmaster in particular is a sexist moron who is too stuffy to even speak directly about sex with the sex ed teacher, and complains she isn’t pretty enough. Cindy Marker as Benjamin’s mother is likewise loud and ignorant, and Zade’s translation is clumsiest with her lines, or at least I noticed it the most with her. Travis Coe’s performance left me unclear on whether Georg is also mentally disabled or if von Mayenburg exaggerated his foibles as well, while Schine’s swim coach joins Crawford in performing naturalistically as the only sane character.
There are some hints that Martyr is meant to incorporate Brechtian elements. Each scene begins with the actors writing its title on the back wall, such as “adultery,” “insanity,” and “schwimunterricht.” Act I ends with a wordless scene entitled “evolution” of Benjamin and two other students trashing Frau Roth’s classroom. Steep’s promotional materials advertise the play as “oft-harrowing, oft-comical,” but there’s very little funny in it. Director Joanie Schultz was unable to settle on an appropriate tone, resulting in scenes with unclear stakes. The worst is when Benjamin protests Frau Roth’s lesson on condoms by stripping naked and daring her to prove herself a hypocrite by telling him to cover up. Crawford plays this scene like an actual crazy person, while Thulin shows only mild consternation as her character attempts to argue theology with him. In the next scene, he’s still naked in the headmaster’s office, which earns him a single line of reproach before the headmaster throws a fit over the condoms. Obviously, no real teachers would behave this way, but Benjamin is presented as credible threat, so everything is frustratingly nonsensical.
And despite being the character played most realistically, Benjamin remains an enigma. He is apparently self-radicalized. One vile pastor (Brandon St. Clair Saunders) implies he is sympathetic to Benjamin’s violent intentions towards gays and Jews and would like Benjamin to lead his youth group, but Benjamin refuses, claiming he has no need for any formal church. Other characters speculate on his motivations: he’s starved for attention, he’s struggling with his sexuality, he’s just playing a game, but we never get any answers. He has one late monologue in which he admits doubt while plotting murder, but even then, it’s not clear why. Roth and Dörflinger get into some interesting debates on how much toleration for Benjamin is appropriate, but any reasonable person would have known better than to try debating a fanatic, as Roth does. On the wall of Steep’s lobby there is an interview with von Mayenburg in which he says Islamic extremism is a big concern, but it’s possible to interpret the Christian scriptures in a way that can justify any atrocity, as well. And? Is that a surprise? While Martyr isn’t a bad show to watch, I was left dissatisfied by how little it did to explore Schultz’s questions.
Playing at Steep Theatre Company, 1115 W Berwyn Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $10-35; to order, call 866-811-4111 or visit www.steeptheatre.com. Playing on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at8:00 pm through May 23, with 3:00 performances on April 26, May 3, May 10, and May 17. Running time is two hours with one intermission. This show contains nudity.