'Returning to Reims': Theater Review

Hoss is magnetic, but the piece is static.

Nina Hoss of 'Homeland' fame stars in Thomas Ostermeier's production based on the politically charged memoir by French author Didier Eribon.

Political, social, philosophical and personal issues form the crux of the Schaubuhne Berlin's ambitious English-language theater piece being given its American premiere at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse. Based on the 2009 memoir by French author Didier Eribon, Returning to Reims, directed by Thomas Ostermeier, bursts with ideas both intellectual and theatrical. It bursts, in fact, with too many of them. This is the sort of production that tries so hard to make you think that it winds up giving itself a headache.

German actress Nina Hoss — best known for her work in Christian Petzold's films such as Barbara and Phoenix, and to TV audiences for Showtime's Homeland — plays the central role of Katy, an actress performing the audio narration for a documentary based on Eribon's book. Joining her in the sound studio are the film's director, Paul (Bush Moukarzel), and the studio's owner and sound engineer, Toni (Ali Gadema).

The first half of the intermission-less, two-hour play consists largely of Katy sitting at a table delivering her narration in soft, hypnotic tones as the documentary is projected on a large screen behind her. (Sebastien Dupouey and Ostermeier co-directed the film, specially created for this production.)

In the documentary, Eribon discusses such matters as his decades-long estrangement from his family, precipitated in part by his father's hostility toward his being gay; his reconciliation with his mother upon his father's death; and, most centrally, the drift of his family — along with the French working class, and those of other nationalities — away from liberalism toward the hard-right nationalism promulgated by the likes of Marine Le Pen's National Front Party.

Roughly 45 minutes in, Katy suddenly stops narrating and begins to question Paul about his editing choices, particularly his removal of a section involving the phrase "conspiracy theory." The two engage in a spirited debate, with Paul explaining that he cut the passage because the audience wouldn't take it seriously. "They just think you're a crazy lefty, so I thought if we cut it we'll do him a favor," he says. "I don't mean to be mansplaining here," he adds sheepishly.

It's soon revealed that's exactly what Paul meant, when he reenters the recording booth and, not aware that the microphone is live, complains, "Just typical, an actress thinking she knows better than me how to make a film." 

When Katy again interrupts her voiceover to make a point, more discussion ensues. Cut to a week later, when the trio reunite to finish the work. Katy continues to complain about certain aspects of the film, including its "didactic ending." At one point, Paul takes an empty seat to watch the action from the audience's vantage point, acknowledging our presence. Toni takes this opportunity to deliver a passionate, politically charged rap.

Eventually the discussion turns to the subject of Katy's father (actually, Hoss' in real life), a blue-collar worker turned politician who was one of the founders of Germany's Green Party. We see vintage photographs, and film footage of him taken during a trip to Brazil, where he worked with indigenous people to help save the rainforest.

As the above description indicates, there's a lot going on here. But while it often proves thought-provoking and incisive in its sociopolitical arguments, the piece is too scattershot to make a real impact. Hoss' narration goes on far too long, feeling static and untheatrical. The subsequent interactions between the characters prove more interesting, at least until the fourth wall is broken for little rhyme or reason. Overall, Ostermeier lets his theatrical conceits get the better of him, squandering the play's thematic ideas in the process.

There's plenty to admire, not the least of which is Hoss' quietly commanding, sensitive turn as the actress standing up for the ideas of the writer whose work she's narrating. And the film-within-the-play, which includes an appearance by Eribon himself, is substantial enough to stand on its own. It's too bad, then, that Returning to Reims ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

Venue: St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn
Cast: Nina Hoss, Bush Moukarzel, Ali Gadema
Director: Thomas Ostermeier
Set and costume designer: Nina Wetzel
Lighting designer: Erich Schneider
Music: Nils Ostendorf
Sound designer: Jochen Jezussek

Production: Schaubuhne Berlin
Presented by St. Ann's Warehouse