Die Geierwally at the Bromberger Waldbühne in Bromberg, Austria
Die Geierwally – Bernadette Abendstein
Father Stromminger – Daniel Pascal
Magd Luckard – Vera Borek
Vinzenz – Hakon Hirzenberger
Joseph – Sven Sorring
The Eagle – “Sigi”
Producer – Harald Gugenberger
Director – Hanspeter Horner
Book – René Freund
Set & Costumes – Ursula N. Müller
Light – Paul Legat and Ursula N. Müller
Music – Warth-Scheiblingkirchen-Bromberg, Bernadette Abendstein/Harald Oberlechner (Zither), Anja Pichler (Harp)
Like the great migrations of the blue whale, the antelope, and the noble Canadian goose, come summer, European theater-makers flee the theater-laden capitals in flock and head to the countryside to make theater for the rural folk. So during my sojourn in Vienna, I too, took wing to the small hamlet Bromberg in search of the city’s thespians. An hour outside the city, I found the Bromberger Waldbühne, an outdoor theater with a sea of tables and benches for beer, goulash and chatter.
Although I had never heard of the play on bill, Die Geierwally, I quickly learned the tale has enjoyed widespread popularity among Austrians for over a century now. The story is drawn from the biography of Tyrolean painter Anna Stainer-Knittel. Born in 1841, Knittel became famous at the age of seventeen by risking her life to protect the village sheep from future eagle attacks by abseiling down a cliff to steal a baby eagle from its nest. Knittel’s unorthodox and emancipated nature gained national repute when the popular novelist, Wilhelmine von Hillern (1836-1916), who met her in Innsbruck, turned her story into a bestselling Heimatroman in 1875. Since then, Die Geierwally has been adapted into several forms including an opera (Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally, a favorite soprano vehicle since its premiere in 1892, from Caniglia to Callas, de los Angeles, and Tebaldi, and now Georghiu and Fleming today), a musical, four films (1921, 1940, 1956, 1988), and most recently a made-for-TV-movie (2005). (The Bergfilm, or mountain film, as the genre was called, was to obsess Leni Riefenstahl as actress and director into the early 1930’s.) As with the novel, these adaptations focus primarily on Knittel’s uniquely emancipated character.
In a new theatrical adaptation, playwright René Freund draws predominately on these feminist themes as well. In fact, these may be the only familiar material to be found in the entire play. Many of the most basic components of her biography are discarded or altered beyond recognition. Freund’s Geierwally finds solace not in painting, but in cultivating the land. She consummates her love not in an elopement against her parents’ will, but in publicly rejecting a marriage to local entrepreneur Vinzenz (Hakon Hirzenberger) arranged by her father (Daniel Pascal). The mother is nowhere to be seen.
The new details might risk belittling Knittel’s unique personality as part of a Romantic fairy-tale, were it not for one additional deviation from the original. Freund transplants Geierwally and her society from the dirndl-decorated world of the 19th-century Austrian countryside to a time still in public consciousness, in the year 1961.
Admittedly, this hackneyed tactic of “resetting” traditional stories in alternative historical periods results more often than not in forced parallelisms; yet Freund’s selection of the 1960s in many ways strengthens the story’s effect as a stage play.
The 1960s provide an apt realm wherein the story’s original themes of sexism and industrialism are fit for display, while furthermore bolstering the evening’s dramatic immediacy by offering the audience a personal and familiar space in which to address these issues. The details of Wally’s struggle may have changed—local women gasp at her masculine trousers, Vinzenz hopes to convert her father’s farm into a rock ‘n’ roll dance hall)—, but the struggle itself remains the same. And as though the set, costumes, and music weren’t enough, Freund personifies the audience’s sense of hindsight with a narrator. Portrayed by seasoned actress Vera Borek, her endless truisms met with a wave of nods, smiles, and affirmative grunts from the audience whose nostalgic thoughts she voiced.
Director Hanspeter Horner makes good on the industrial themes as the visual and aural through-line of his formidable staging. The play opens with 40 actors, both professional ringers from Vienna as well as local farmers and townspeople, chopping wood. The set, built on a steep, dirt slope framed by coniferous forest on either side, consists of three main playing levels connected by log stairs which the actors constantly race up and down. (Only days before the premiere the Austrian military was called in to reassemble the set which had collapsed due to flooding.) Scattered around this vertical spread, men, women, and children in traditional Austrian costume chop and saw wood, passing it up and down the stairs for storage. On the ground level, one man uses a chain saw for his task, filling the aural space with an abrasive, undeniably modern sound. This animated tableau runs for a solid three minutes. The effect is at once familiar in its naturalistic staging and alienating audio-visual dialectic.
Always avoiding a text-based approach to the industrial theme, Horner charges the stage with several pieces of authentic 1960’s farm machinery. In addition to the chain saw in the first scene, Vinzenz rides in on a period Puch 150 motorcycle, and Wally drives a tractor across the rustic stage. Likewise, Horner looks to the authentic in representing the natural world. For this, he hired “Sigi” the eagle who on several occasions glides over the audience and playing space. A cipher to her spirit, the eagle adds a lovely lyricism to Wally’s more contemplative moments.
Die Geierwally features a number of strong actors, notably Daniel Pascal, a Linz-based actor who took over the role of Geierwally’s father only a week before opening. Pascal’s style smacks of maturity and control. He doesn’t upstage his scene partners, but humbly fuels them, raising them to new levels. Bernadette Abendstein as Wally provides a consistent portrayal easily moving us through Stainer-Knittel’s story. And while the two love interests, played by Hakon Hirzenberger and Sven Soring, are strong actors in their own rights, they have been egregiously miscast. Whereas in the story, Geierwally rejects the slimy businessman Vinzenz for the principled officer Joseph (Sven Sorring), the superb natural chemistry between Abendstein and Hirzenberger (a real-life couple) sabotages the possibility for any romantic energy in the Geierwally-Joseph scenes.
An amateurish summer theater quality begins to rear its head, however, in Harold’s implementation of music. The piece completely lacks any sense of musical dramaturgy. In traditional form, the music most often serves as a means for scenic transition. In some instances, the music is performed live by a local nine-piece oom-pah band, in others pre-recorded zither music (shyly performed by Abendstein) is played over a modern sound system. But unlike the carefully constructed visual display of industrial invasion, the choice of whether to use pre-recorded or live sound shows little rhyme or reason. Most offensive, though, is the use of “Let It Be” as the play’s closing anthem. Sung by the full cast and accompanied live on harp, the song comes across as a cheap way to sum up an evening far more complex than the Beatle’s lyrics suggest. Not to mention additional technological complications with the PA system during the show undermine the effective text, acting, and staging. Technology is no longer represented as an invasive force. It is one!
The play’s charm stems from its unassuming moments. Die Geierwally doesn’t try to be great art, but a well-told story. In many ways, Die Geierwally reminded me of my own summer nights in the New England summer stock theaters—a certain enthusiasm in the approach and fidelity to the narrative. Perhaps this stems from the fact that the Bromberg Waldbühne, like most American theaters, is a private enterprise. Perhaps it stems from the rural audience’s excitement of having theater in their own back yard.
Yet, there is a fundamental difference between the American and Austrian models. Whereas in the States nearly every theater offers a variation on the same program, here theater is viewed as a local phenomenon. Die Geierwally is a play about its audience. Among the 300 seats sat a mix of middle-aged and elderly types, the former in cotton pastels, the latter in dirndls and lederhosen. One elderly gentleman even sported a traditional hunting jacket! The townspeople onstage were the people in the audience, all enjoying a mass ride down memory lane. A ride I was very happy to have been on.