Certain theatrical experiences stick with you. I doubt I will ever forget a production of Buechner’s Leonce and Lena directed by Andreas Kriegenburg at the Residenztheater in Munich that I saw in 1999. The stage was a huge steeply raked field of artificial turf; at one point, one character watered the grass, and another figure grew out of the floor, endlessly tall top-hat first. Still one of the most memorable theatrical moments I’ve ever seen. Now I can add another to my collection.

Antu Romero Nunes’s production of Schiller’s most Sturm-ing and Drang-ing play, The Robbers, written when the poet was just 22, is an unbelievable tour de force. Not only does he reduce a cast of 18 to 3. He also gives each of those three actors the stage in turn. First up is Paul Schroeder, who gets to own the place for 50 minutes as Franz Moor (Schiller’s version of King Lear‘s Edmund, the jealous and greedy younger son of the Count von Moor); then Aenne Schwarz takes over for 20 minutes as Amalia, the woman both Franz and his brother Karl love; and then Michael Klammer’s larger-than-life Karl Moor, the hyper-idealist and soon hyper-lethal robber and killer, gets a full hour on his own. And it all finishes in a glorious and gloriously over-the-top finale.

If Nunes is working with a very limited cast, his stage is even more limited: entirely empty to begin with, its space is structured almost exclusively through the use of spots, often from the sides; the single prop is a chair that’s pushed on casually from the wings. In some ways, this is quite reminiscent of Michael Thalheimer’s way of structuring the void of an empty proscenium stage. But where Thalheimer is minimalist and reductive in his aesthetics, with light holding actors in place, in Nunes’ work, the lights struggle to keep up with his actors who take charge of both space and text with boundless, kinetic energy.

The text: well. Some of it is Schiller’s (as the production keeps reminding us, each character announcing at least once that we are watching “The Robbers. By Friedrich Schiller. A Tragedy”). Schroeder keeps a good deal of the play’s lines intact, racing his way through summary versions of the first two acts, including an absurdly aged version of his father, a very camp take on his own brother, and an Amalia that’s little more than a screeching hysteric, and snapping the playbook shut half way through the play with a premature triumphant conclusion. Although he departs from the text, he still more or less remains in the play: this is Franz Moor’s perspective on the events of The Robbers, but it is a coherent perspective of sorts (he speaks the stage directions out loud, referring to himself not as “Franz von Moor” but as “I von Moor”). The most remarkable departure from the script, a fake report of Karl’s death on a battle field which takes up barely three short-ish paragraphs in Schiller, keeps going for over ten minutes, a hilarious, gruesome, totally over-the-top and utterly delightful performance rewarded with instant uproarious applause. As much as Schroeder is “doing” the play, though, he also never pretends that this is anything but a show — except when he shocks us into thinking something real may have happened. Towards the end of Franz’s famous and endless soliloquy in Act 2 (a three-page prose speech that begins, oh Friedrich you prankster, “This is taking too long”), Schroeder pulls his chair to the very edge of the stage and goes through a list of things that might finally kill his father: sorrow? Anger? Fear? As he’s ruminating, he’s writhing in the chair — and then he and the chair topple right off the stage and headlong into the audience. A universal gasp. A pause. And he jumps up, completely unharmed: Franz has got it. It’s shock! Shock will kill his dad.

Schwarz’s Amalia is less expansive, less radical in her treatment of the text, less ironic as well; but where Schroeder is all hyperkinetic virtuosity and mercurial energy, her physical work is a all about control: at one point she creates a completely captivating image of her being partially undressed and embraced by the lecherous Franz simply by wrapping her arms around herself, letting her own hands roam over and claw at her shoulders and sides. It’s a slow, painful, quietly violent dance of one body with itself, one body turning itself into two people, one body violating itself. Gorgeous and awful.

Then she leaves, a blindingly bright light from the back wall dazzles the audience, and the scene is over. The stage is empty. The houselights are on. It must be the break. People start getting up. And then the thing happens that will stick with me: an enormous explosion. The lighting grid falls from the ceiling above the stage. Huge black chunks are blown from the stage walls. Everything is covered in acrid smoke. Karl Moor is here.

The first thing he does is remove a pair of earplugs and berate the audience for not picking up the ones that were available in the lobby. Didn’t we take the posters about noise seriously? Why not? And what are we here for anyway? And then he reminds us, using Schiller’s lines, that what we just witnessed was merely “theatre thunder” — it may have made our ears ring, but, you know, it wasn’t really real. Sound and fury, signifying nothing, etc. Michael Klammer will spend the next half hour like this: starting into his Schiller and stopping; giving us a bunch of lines that sound like they might be from the play, only to stop, grin, and note that in fact that they’re from Buechner’s Danton’s Death (a legitimate theft, he points out, because “the guy who is playing me also appeared in that play”). This sort of thing keeps happening — he lifts lines and jokes from a recent Volksbuehne production, he imports a battle speech from Kleist’s Penthesilea (not identifying the text, but stopping himself: “Ah, right, no — wrong play. Good speech, though”), he repurposes lines from Schiller’s preface to the play. He tries on role after role, tick after tick, allusion after allusion, pretending to start on The Robbers again and again, only to abandon the effort (snapping off in mid-line, he turns to us with a sly and brash “Huh? Look at that! He can really play that after all! That’s what you’re telling yourself now, isn’t it?”). Of course he can, for a few lines. But beyond that? Could anyone? How to deal with this pubescent monster of a text? And why bother?

This could be awful. It could be facile. But it’s not. It’s extremely funny and quite brilliant. But it’s also, in a very strange way, true to Schiller. Karl first appears in the play, after all, delivering an even more interminable rant than his brother — about how pathetic he finds everything around him, about pedantry, about the utter futility of art or theatre’s efforts to capture greatness. In essence, Klammer is doing the same thing: the line he lifts from Rene Pollesch’s The Streets of Berladelphia, “There’s something missing, this isn’t enough yet,” is a jokey allusion, but it’s also a serious point about theatre, and about what contemporary theatre is to do with texts as grandiose, as untameable, as immoderate, as old, and as great as Schiller’s. How could our efforts now ever not be lacking something? How could they ever live up to the insane ambitions of the text? And he does speak as Karl, or a version of Karl, throughout, and tells us as much, too — “the guy who’s playing my figure” was my favourite phrase, neatly keeping Karl speaking while denying him any subjecthood. There’s Michael Klammer, but he’s not talking; there’s a mere figure, that’s Karl. But then there’s also someone who can call that figure “his.”

And having played with us and toyed with Schiller for half an hour, Klammer’s Karl finally puts his finger on what’s his biggest bother, and it’s the root of Schiller’s Karl’s despair, too: a private family disaster that comes to stand for a universal loss of meaning. Klammer calls it the “plan,” the great dream of Schiller’s age: as Karl Moor puts it, a humanity united in a spirit of peace, a world of brother- and sisterhood; a world like a family under one benign father “on high.” But now that plan is gone for Karl, because his father has disowned him, because he no longer owns “the sweet name of ‘child'” — his private loss makes it impossible to uphold the larger metaphor that sustains the universal ideal. If Karl is no longer one of the Moor family, neither can humanity ever be a family again either. That’s the point Klammer returns to again and again, until he finally decides: this needs to be played out, and he’s going to do it all, all in his mind and all on his own. And so he does, racing through a version of the play from Karl’s perspective.

Which is where the show’s second great theatrical moment happens. Klammer gave one of Karl’s gang-rousing speeches a trial run before, not getting any response to his demand that we all bond into a brotherhood of criminals, “Robbers and murderers to the death!” Now he does it again, going for it whole hog. And as he reaches his oratorical crescendo, the entire audience — or so it seemed to me — erupted in response. My first reaction, disturbingly, was to join in; but I didn’t know the lines. Why did they? How could they? For a brief moment, the classic sounded — felt — like part of everyone’s shared vocabulary (but mine). And then it became obvious that a large choir of robbers, 25 or so strong, had been sitting among us along. They continued their game of call and response for a while, in impressive, rousing but also creepy unison, and then, donning stocking masks, joined Karl on stage, a wall of black bodies behind him, anonymous and menacing.

That’s not where the production ends, of course. First, all three characters are finally united for Franz’s death (Karl shoots him repeatedly, and noisily, but that doesn’t kill him — as Franz notes, it’s just more “theatre thunder.” Death comes in the form of a read-out stage direction, one of the most absurd of the entire play: “He strangles himself with his golden hatband.”) And Karl can’t kill Amalia either, as the text demands: first the gun misfires, then he keeps dropping his bullets. And then she runs off, frustrated. Klammer’s effort to stage the rest of the play in his mind is starting to unravel, and it finally comes crashing down when stagehands roll out a carpet of green grass and bring in a forest of idiotically fake trees: the robbers live and die in a forest, after all. How is Karl supposed to end the play on a set like that? Something’s missing again. And so Klammer resets the show once more: “Let me start again. The Robbers. By Friedrich Schiller. A tragedy.” Blackout. Better luck next time.

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