German Play brings Milwaukee comedy back to stage

April 17th 2015
Arts & Humanities, Giving, Students
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Would you like to see a comedy on a University of Wisconsin-Madison stage that was last performed in Milwaukee 160 years ago? You can do so May 4, 5 and 6 in the Memorial Union's completely redesigned Fredric March Play Circle — thanks to the combined efforts of two UW-Madison professors, a renowned German guest director, and a group of enthusiastic students.

First, Professor of German Cora Lee Kluge unearthed Christian Essellen's gem Deliver Us From Temperance! (Bekehrung vom Temperenzwahn), written in German and previously to be found only in an obscure 1854 source, but now available to contemporary readers in Other Witnesses (2007), her collection of literature by German Americans from 1850 to 1914.

Theater director Manfred Roth from Frankfurt am Main, Germany, is directing a troupe of talented UW-Madison German students in the German-language production that will finally bring Essellen's comedy back to the stage.

The crucial link between Kluge's text and Roth's work is Professor of German Sabine Gross, instructor of German 644 Theory and Practice of German Theater and producer of the German Play. Gross brought the director to Madison on a Brittingham Foundation residency grant to work with her students.

And then there are 20 essential participants: the students who are acting, researching historical background, working on costumes and props, or designing the program along with Roth and Gross.

German 644 is no ordinary course. After an initial two months of scholarly work and discussions on theater, the group — undergraduates and graduate students — changes its course for six intense weeks of rehearsals, all conducted completely in German. German Plays have a long tradition in the Department of German; since 1993, Gross has been in charge of the biennial event. The spring 2015 play is unique in having also been written – in German – in Wisconsin.

"It is a unique and unforgettable experience, bringing undergraduate and graduate students together for a very special group project with a marvelous German theater professional."
— Professor Sabine Gross

Essellen's comedy has held up well even though it spoke to concerns of his time. It marks the occasion of a heated political-cultural debate and election that included an 1853 vote on a temperance law, pitting German Americans against Anglo-Americans in Wisconsin. Essellen, who had only recently arrived in Milwaukee, did his part in the campaign against temperance as the acting editor of the Milwaukee German-American newspaper Wisconsin Banner, but also as a playwright. (To find out how the temperance law fared in Wisconsin, pick up a program at one of the performances!)

Deliver Us From Temperance! blends politics, love, and intrigue on the eve of the election for an entertaining comedy that paints characters in broad strokes and uncovers double standards and hypocrisy before the inevitable happy ending. Essellen has an excellent ear for the influence of English on the German spoken by German Americans, offering a sampling of an American-German "mishmash" especially among the "loafers," who will only vote for temperance when bribed ("treated") with whiskey.

The production's director, Roth, has worked in a wide range of genres, from mainstream classics and opera to cabaret and fringe, experimental and puppet theater. Directing his UW-Madison student performers with high energy and coming up with lots of entertaining details, he does not aim at "realism" in his staging: "These are farcical characters," he explains, "and our performance will bring out the comedic dimension."

Participants are also excited about taking the play on the road: The troupe will travel to Milwaukee for a guest performance May 8 (see the Department of German website for details).

"All of this is a lot of extra work for the students, many of whom hold jobs in addition to taking classes," says Gross, who is in charge of fundraising (and who has secured contributions from the Department of German and the UW-Madison Anonymous Fund).

"But it is also a unique and unforgettable experience, bringing undergraduate and graduate students together for a very special group project with a marvelous German theater professional."

All performances, which start at 7:30 p.m., are free and open to the public. Reservations are strongly encouraged: please call the Department of German at 608-262-2192, stop by room 818 in Van Hise Hall (from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. or from 1 to 4p.m.) or email german@mailplus.wisc.edu (confirmation within 2-3 days).

Don’t know any German? A detailed synopsis in English, as well as English-language introductions and commentary to the scenes, will help audience members with little or no knowledge of German enjoy the play.