“In a Year with Thirteen Moons,” at Yale Rep through May 18

By Tom Nissley

A visit to Yale Rep’s intriguing production of “In a Year with 13 Moons” can hardly be marked down as enjoyable. The play is one of the darkest scripts I’ve ever watched. The few moments of relief occur only when Elvira is being rescued by a compassionate observer who brings her tea and a kind of sympathy. There are other moments of diversion: the hi-jinks dances inside Anton’s headquarters, perhaps, or the moments of happiness with his daughter, which are even a diversion for his own sense of nothingness...


Did I say “his?” Yes, because the script is the story of a man named Erwin (married, and with a child) who in a particular moment miscalculated his own devotion to a colleague and the comment that followed “You love me? That would be strange. I am a man. Too bad you’re not a girl.” To change the balance he headed to Casablanca and had himself castrated, somehow believing that if he returned home without male genitals he and Anton, the dynamic friend, could be a team. That never happened. “In a Year with Thirteen Moons” is the sad telling of the despair that surrounded Elvira (as he now calls himself) as he/she tried to figure out where or how to fit into a new existence. It is an unrelenting search for meaningful identity in the midst of tragedy that spirals only downward to a logical and unhappy conclusion.


The background: the play is a translation of a famous film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, adapted for the stage by Robert Woodruff (who directs the production) and Bill Camp (who plays the tormented Elvira). Fassbinder was a principle artist in the New German Cinema, a group that agitated within the philosophical arena of a divided Germany after World War II. The tragic search for identity described by a castrated Erwin/Elvira may allude to the lost soul of Germany.


From a certain perspective (Yale offers the caveat ‘for mature audiences’) the decadence in the play is overwhelming. It is not clear -- and probably not meant to be clear -- whether Elvira is searching for physical affection or the respect of shared love. We watch her through the eyes of Christoph, her abusive lover (Babs Olusanmokun), Anton Saitz (Christopher Innvar), Sister Gudrun, Erwin’s childhood teacher (Joan MacIntosh), Soul-Frieda, his guru (Jesse J. Perez), Irene, his wife (Jaqueline Kim), and Marie-Ann, his daughter (Mariko Nakasone), each of whom fills in some aspect of her past experience, and Frank (Mickey Solis) and Red Zora (Monica Santana) who befriend or help her after she has been beaten by skinheads while cruising for some sexual encounters.


The production is intriguingly high-tech, making use of projected graphics and videography that puts every aspect of Elvira’s search onto a screen somewhere on stage. The effect of all those screens makes her an object -- increasing the sensation that Elvira is remote, in a time-warp.


Original music by Michael Attias, also played by Satoshi Takeishi, heightens the tension on stage. During the performance I felt almost chained into my seat, waiting to be released, but I was annoyed on opening night as the play descended into silence at its ending to have a cheerleader in the fourth row jump up and applaud hysterically, keeping her hands high above her head as if to lead us all to adoring praise. I wondered if she was a plant? At any rate she jumped the gun. There was a need for the intensity to simmer before the applause, and though the well-coifed cheerleader acted as if she really ‘got’ the play and its meaning, I’m doubting that she did.


Bill Camp’s acting was magnificent. And all the actors in this intricate staging were bullet-on. David Zinn’s costumes enriched the production handsomely.


“In a Year with Thirteen Moons” runs through May 18. Information at www.yalerep.org, or call 203-432-1234. I don’t think you’ll have trouble getting tickets.

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