The first image of “Emilia Galotti” tells us everything. Director Michael Thalheimer, working with the Deutsches Theater Berlin, has pared Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 18th century tragedy down from its standard five acts to a brisk 75 minutes, seeking less to tell a story than to impart a psychosexual idea. We feel its impact instantly when Emilia steps onstage, framed by the dark outline of a doorway in a white wall. Her mere presence makes fire leap up from the floor and sparks flash from the sky: The sexuality of this silent woman is going to leave everyone in flames.
Beneath the political intrigue, that’s arguably the key point in Lessing’s original, which centers on the murderous scheme of Prince Gonzaga (Sven Lehmann) to take Emilia (Regine Zimmermann) from her intended husband. There’s more to the story, of course, and those familiar with the original may balk at what gets discarded in service of Thalheimer’s minimalist vision. Meanwhile, those new to the play may puzzle over its finale, since the morbid ending is no longer bolstered by character development.
Ultimately, we’re asked just to accept that everyone — from Emilia’s father (Peter Pagel) to the prince’s Machiavellian servant Marinelli (Ingo Hulsmann) — writhes with the same lust that drives the Prince and Emilia to despair. This is difficult, since we know so little about these people. And much of the rapid-fire German gets cut from the English supertitles, so there’s a limit to what the dialogue can teach us. From a narrative perspective, the production unconvincingly argues that passion scorches us all.
But step back from the story itself and Thalheimer’s vision roars to life. His work thrives by making emotional, not rational sense. Consider the actor’s line delivery: Every word gets hurled at top speed, and the breathless tumble of harsh German syllables becomes an aural metaphor for the unchecked impulses that drive these people to terrible acts. In the actors’ bodies, too, we see the jerking, unnatural movements of strings being pulled by desire.
Thalheimer generally directs his cast to avoid eye contact, staring straight ahead to speak or twisting in agony at someone’s back. Out of these stylized constraints, though, the ensemble crafts brilliant work. Each has a broad physical and vocal vocabulary that clearly defines individual desires.
With the types of lust so clear, it’s thrilling when Thalheimer eventually lets them collide, as in a heated scene between Marinelli and the Prince’s spurned mistress Orsina (Nina Hoss). Hulsmann plays the servant like a serpent waiting to uncoil, and his barely repressed wickedness ignites with the self-aggrandized suffering of Hoss’ jilted lady. When these characters seduce each other, we know little about them, but the grand acting gestures scream volumes about the pull of mean-spirited attraction.
None of these metaphors would really land if the designers didn’t place them in such a potent world. Kudos especially to Olaf Altmann’s set (he also created the sleekly fashionable costumes). A massive forced-perspective corridor, his design starts as a series of unfinished wooden planks that narrow into the aforementioned white wall. The impression is that we’re looking backstage, that the painted finery of the play’s court scenes must be on the other side of those wooden walls. When the planks unexpectedly swing open to allow quick exits, there are hints of a broad universe just beyond the wings.
But that world is not for this production. This “Emilia Galotti” lives in the unvarnished psyche, where naked emotion has nothing pretty to hide behind. The show may never tell us exactly who Emilia is, but there’s no denying the staggering force of everything she feels.