July 8, 2024. The theater season has come to an end, now it’s time to get out of the heat of the city and head up to the cool mountains. A theater of summer refreshment, where body and mind can breathe, that is the promise of the Reichenau Festival, and that also means: a break from political theater. But is it even allowed? „The world is definitely not going to stand for much longer, the world is definitely not going to stand for much longer“ – as sung by the wandering cobbler Knieriem in Nestroy’s Comet Song. The humor lies in the contradiction between the lyrics and the cheerful melody. The one singing doesn’t seem to let the imminent end of the world spoil his mood. How can this man be so carefree?

Is a comet flying by?
Robert Meyer plays the role of Nestroy, the apocalyptic, rambling drunkard Knieriem, and also directs. Last year, he staged a nearly perfect Nestroy with „He Wants to Have a Fling,“ and his collaborators from last year, set designer Christof Cremer and musician Helmut Stippich, this time as a trio with his wife and son, are also back this year – never change a winning team. The expectations are accordingly high.

It starts off funny: on a stage, fairies and spirits in flowing magic cloaks parody Goethe’s „Prelude in Heaven“ from Faust in deep Viennese dialect: the evil spirit Lumpazivagabundus – Sebastian Wendelin, dressed just like Gründgens‘ Mephisto – is accused of leading people to debauchery everywhere. The fairy Fortuna offers the chief wizard to make the rundown subjects useful members of society again. Lumpazi bets that she won’t succeed. They choose three impoverished guinea pigs on Earth, if Fortuna manages to convert at least two of the three, she wins and Lumpazi will be banished from the fairy realm. If she fails, he can stay.

And even though there is talk in between about the impending end of the world (after all, in 1830, Halley’s Comet was on its way): The Reichenau audience should probably be spared from disturbing parallels to the present. They don’t see a dingy dive, but a charming, stylized booth and people in funny red-yellow-black jumpers and pants. Christoph Cremer has perfected the modular system from last year for the stage: hinged, lovingly printed partitions can be folded up and down to create background panoramas, rooms, stairs, or a bar. The transformations, under the red-gloved hands of the mephistophelianly agile Sebastian Wendelin, become small moments of brilliance. The stage is indeed a sight to behold, but it takes away the „life-like“ scandal that Nestroy has dared for the first time here.

No improvement in sight
The three debauched individuals selected by Fortuna for the bet are the former cobbler Knieriem (Robert Meyer), a passionate amateur astronomer and notorious drunkard; the journeyman tailor Zwirn (Florian Carove), fired from his position for flirting with his master’s wife; and the journeyman carpenter Leim (Thomas Frank), who simply disappeared when he thought his master was going to marry off the daughter he secretly loved to a rich neighbor. Fortuna shows this debauched trio the number of a lottery ticket in a dream and gives them a huge fortune – which Knieriem and Zwirn quickly squander. Leim has to help them out so they can learn to handle money properly.

And now comes the unprecedented twist that Nestroy used to wipe the entire genre of magical reformation pieces from the stage and establish himself as a new star in the theater world: Knieriem and Zwirn do not reform. They try briefly, but realize it’s not for them. When they meet again after some time, they tell each other that they now live off begging and share techniques on how to get by best.

This surprisingly anticlimactic turn still defies categorization today. Here, nothing is improved, neither the people nor society. This development leaves one’s moral mouth, so to speak, agape. Robert Meyer places his Knieriem in the realm of this anarchic silent defiance against all things orderly. He plays a wonderfully eccentric person, with a mind constantly at work behind his forehead and his eyes gleaming in anticipation of the next binge, as if he were looking straight into Elysium. But what Robert Meyer achieves as an actor, he does not accomplish as a director this time. It’s hard to empathize with the other characters as much as with Knieriem. The indiscriminate groping of a womanizer, which would have been considered completely harmless in Nestroy’s time, is now repulsive. When the nouveau riche Zwirn, in his flowing Biedermeier-Versace robe (the costumes in this scene are fabulously funny!), approaches two sisters, he eerily resembles Harvey Weinstein. The whole play dissolves into a collection of many good and funny scenes, but it still leaves one feeling slightly unsatisfied.

A kind of epiphany
Even more willingly, one engages in the encounter with the next character from the fascinating Austrian egomaniacs: Schnitzler’s Anatol. He is, so to speak, a regular guest in Reichenau, just as Schnitzler himself once was. Like his author, Anatol is restless in his pursuit of new love affairs. But unlike the tailor Zwirn, Anatol is not seeking pleasure. On the contrary, the repetition of the same patterns bores and tortures him. He is searching for that one fleeting moment, where something happens that he can hardly describe, he just knows that it is sacred – an epiphany.

Michael Gampe directs straightforwardly and calmly, allowing Schnitzler’s seemingly simple dialogues to still exude their enchanting magic after all these years. It begins and ends with Leonard Cohen’s ballad „Take This Waltz,“ setting a longing mood that fits Schnitzler perfectly (and whose lyrics are by Lorca). At the beginning, Anna Starzinger plays it on the cello, at the end, all the women Anatol has had affairs with come on stage like ghosts and sing it in harmony. Anton Widauer plays Anatol, he is the same age as Schnitzler was when he wrote the series of scenes in which he does not treat his alter ego kindly. In most scenes, Anatol comes off looking foolish because he has overestimated his effect on women. One can pathologize this Anatol, see him as a narcissist or as a hopelessly immature neurotic. Schnitzler himself does that too.

Anton Widauer plays him very self-centered, with a solemn seriousness towards himself that makes him seem very young and unreflective. But if Anton Widauer had given Anatol a bit more self-irony, he could have shown more bitterness about himself. It might have also made the contrast to those moments where he talks about those certain moments he is truly serious about, and which he may never give up chasing until his death, stronger.

Incredibly nice guy
Lastly, from the line-up of great egomaniacs from the pen of the most eloquent Austrian poets, the doctor from Thomas Bernhard’s „The Ignoramus and the Madman“ enters the stage. Two men sit in the dressing room of an opera singer, who is about to sing the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute: her nearly blind father and a doctor, her admirer and constant companion. This doctor talks non-stop, a Bernhardian tirade from his early days. Monomaniacally, he rants about the cultural scene and delves into ever steeper theses about perfection in art, then transitions seamlessly to the meticulous description of dissecting a human corpse. Stefan Jürgens tries it completely differently than all the famous, highly artistic Bernhard actors before him.

He portrays the doctor in a logorrheic conversational tone, almost laughing at every word, as if constantly apologizing for what he says – and thus, as he did last year as Tartuffe, he simply comes across as what he probably is: an incredibly nice guy. Why this charming audience favorite in Reichenau must play monstrously torn, inscrutable power-hungry characters year after year (or wants to?), which do not match his acting temperament at all, remains a mystery. While his doctor is a credible character, he is not possessed. His counterpart, Martin Schwab, is much more enigmatic. He turns the almost blind father of the singer, who empties a bottle of schnapps in her dressing room every night, into the actual main role. The way he repeats individual words from the doctor’s diatribe with aplomb has exactly that cutting artificiality and perfection, of which the doctor says it is the only thing that matters. Terese Affolter also shines in the role of the dressing room woman, a quirky character who seems to be the secret ruler of the dressing room, and actually the entire opera.

Ultimately, all of this works out somewhat like a very drawn-out, dark sketch. The criticism of the art world („a dung heap“), the newspapers („organs of malice“), and the audience („vulgarity of the spectators“) elicits laughter. Bernhard’s language still captivates, the obsessive, ruthless pursuit of the absolute in art possesses a cold fascination.

In Reichenau, for three evenings, you are drawn into the world of three different fanatics. You feel tempted to imitate them, silently drinking yourself to death in the face of the impending end of the world. Or searching for the next epiphany in ever new, ever more insipid infatuations. Or raging about the ignorance and stupidity of the world until you vomit your own hideous ego out of sheer bile and contempt. A theater that lures you so deeply into the world of individual, self-absorbed people is indeed the opposite of political theater. But for a short while, one is allowed to indulge in such fantasies, to throw themselves into the arms of the evil spirit Lumpazivagabundus – here, in the retro-anarchic Reichenau summer retreat.