An Off Broadway mounting of a Fassbinder favorite

February 2001--This past December, New York theatregoers looking for the antidote to excessive holiday cheer needed only to check out the Off Broadway production The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Written by the late German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who also made a movie version in 1973), Petra is a scalding black comedy detailing the power games played by the title character, a stupefyingly self-obsessed lesbian fashion designer. Much of the play's action focuses on Petra's obsession with Karin, a selfish young drifter; observing from the sidelines are Sidonie, Petra's superficial friend; Gabi, her rebellious daughter, and Valerie, her bewildered mother. Also on hand is Marlene, Petra's sinister, silent assistant, whose job description includes innumerable humiliations. (In one of the production's supremely creepy moments, Marlene got down on all fours and served as Petra's coffee table.)

Under the direction of Ian Belton, this unsettling play had an unsettling production to match. Jeff Cowie's enormous set, representing Petra's penthouse apartment/atelier, was dominated by fur-covered walls and an array of kitschy/chic furnishings. It also contained untold depths, with an upstage playing area visible only in the reflection in a set of mirrored doors, and a roof exterior located behind a wall of windows. Rick Martin's lighting acted as a kind of fever chart of Petra's increasingly desperate emotional life, beginning with a relatively unobtrusive white wash, then turning increasingly stark and directional, as Fassbinder's heroine spun out of control.

The production was staged at the Henry Miller Theatre, a former Broadway house turned nightclub that was briefly known as the Kit Kat Club, for the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Cabaret. The space, which is scheduled for demolition, is a kind of epic ruin; Martin says it lacked any rudimentary amenities, such as rigging. Fortunately, rigging supervisor Janet Clancy installed half a dozen electric pipes, as well as three trusses, allowing the LD some positions. Additional positions included front-of-house units outfitted with Wybron CXI color mixers.

As Petra's romantic life barreled towards disaster, the lighting became more and more theatrical, adding to the increasingly unhinged atmosphere. Martin began to add colors to his palette, including a facetious touch of pink to underscore Petra's first date with Karin. Later, hot bright washes from Strand Bambinos placed in side positions gave the stage an increasingly sinister look. ("The fur took the light beautifully," he notes. "I was surprised at how unfurry it sometimes looked.") He also used a single High End Systems Studio Beam PC as a refocusable special to highlight Petra and Marlene at certain points in the action.

On the other hand, Cowie's set posed a number of challenges. Speaking of the rooftop area, Martin says, "There was zero space for a sunlight wash, so I lit it with L&E Broad Cycs, with one overhead light for the moment when Marlene appears behind the glass." The designer adds that Belton loved the reflections of actors in the skylight glass, and also in the mirrored doors, so "I kept things pretty dark in that area, to preserve the reflectivity," he adds. "That upstage area is lit with nothing but downlight; it was the only solution that gave me any control. A lot of stuff happens up there—Marlene is creeping around—and you want to see her without featuring too much."

In many ways, Martin's lighting led the way to the play's blistering denouement. During a birthday party scene that collapsed into a series of ugly confrontations, the designer illuminated the proscenium with dimmable fluorescent units. This touch provided a transition to the final scene, which featured Petra, abandoned and exhausted, alone with her mother. With all the furniture stripped away, the audience's line of vision narrowed by the fluorescent units, Petra and her mother were seen in a single downlight from the Studio Beam creating a final, intimate picture of desolation.

The bulk of Martin's plot consisted of ETC Source Four units; control was provided by an ETC Express console. Equipment was supplied by Fourth Phase. Other key personnel included assistant lighting designer Nicole Pearce, master electrician David Zeffren, technical director Jon Allaire, and lightboard operator Rebecca Mercier. Having earned mixed reviews, Petra von Kant ran at the Henry Miller through January 7.