Lithuanian Folk Tales in “The Vienna Woods”

By Aušra Kaminskaitė 2019 06 24
"Tales from the Vienna Woods", the newest performance staged by Yana Ross. Photo by Laura Vansevičienė

Yana Ross came from the USA and started working in Lithuanian theatre in 2007 and has already become one of the most intriguing directors here. Her most recent performance is Tales from the Vienna Woods (German: Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald) staged at the State Youth Theatre of Lithuania. This is the second play directed by Yana Ross in Lithuania portraying the personalities deeply wounded by the fascist legacy. Her first work was Our Class (Polish: Nasza klasa) by Polish playwright Tadeusz Słobodzianek staged at the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre - where the director usually works while visiting Lithuania - in 2013. Yana Ross was granted the most significant national theatrical award the Golden Stage Cross for the direction of Our Class and, so far, has been the only female director having received this prize.

Tales from the Vienna Woods, the newest performance staged by the director in Lithuania, stands out for its harmonious ensemble of actors defined by theatre critic Kristina Steiblytė as the feature typical of most of the works by the director and clearly revealing, “the result of joint work, mutual trust and jointly assumed responsibility.” The director casts a critical eye over the Lithuanian nation, its history and current trends and needs. This is one of the few performances in Lithuania where the Brechtian tradition of acting is more suitable than that of Stanislavski. And yet it can't be otherwise as the performance analyses those virtues of patriotic Lithuanians that have long been considered as the cornerstones of the nation, i.e. wedding traditions, the concept of a “real,” practical man and an unambiguous attitude toward post-war partisans. Playwright Mindaugas Nastaravičius adapted contextually the play Tales from the Vienna Woods written in the early 20th century by Austrian dramatist Ödön von Horváth, where the Austrian author criticised the then popular fascist ideas that led to the Second World War. Every character experiences their own storyline that intertwines with the plotlines of the other members of the company (family, relatives, friends) acting on the stage. A spectator has the right to choose the plot that is most relevant to them and to observe the action from a completely personal perspective rather than the one imposed by the creators.

As soon as viewers enter the hall, they are greeted by spectacular set design. When speaking about the work by Polish set designer Justyna Elminowska, theatre critic Kamilė Žičkytė mentions, “A multifunction hall reminiscent of weddings and funerals, sports events and other community gatherings that sometimes turns into a real slum, a hallucination of sick imagination with the help of the lighting.“ British theatre critic Bryce Lease mentions a social meaning of such image, “The set is a downtrodden interior of functional Soviet-era architecture, which draws attention to the pomposity of the former system and the austerity and dispossessions of the current one.“

This space houses the feasts - weddings and funerals - that Lithuanians half-jokingly refer to as the only occasions for all the relatives to get together. Kamilė Žičkytė says that, “The performance soon engages the audience in the daily life of the suburb and you get lost in the number of deaths, weddings; the number of emigrating or returning people, or the number of newborns. It's like melodrama unravelling in front of your eyes pierced by instances of slow psychological abuse and sexual insatiability. With the precision of a plastic surgeon, the director opens up and tears the wounds of our society.” Theatre critic Kristina Steiblytė specifies the plot of a “truly” Lithuanian feast, “The characters seated at a coffin or a feast table comment on and gossip about each other without even moving - it is as if everybody should hear, see and know what is going on. And yet nobody notices anything. These scenes are interrupted by more intimate ones, where a handful of actors reveal the consequences of such festive gatherings. It's like hangover after a party, when, after sobering up, people realize who puked, who fell asleep at the table, who slept with whom, who hit whom... and then they continue drinking. Because such is the order in these woods.” The critic adds that, “Real sobering up is impossible in 'the Vienna woods'.”

While referring to the actors of the performance, the critics agree unanimously that there are no main characters here; however, all of them speak about Marytė's fate. Marytė is a young girl who has obeyed her father all her life and can no longer conform to the imposed norms of society. Marytė's situation is associated with the patriarchal legacy. According to British theatre critic Bryce Lease who writes for the portal, “Marytė takes up online pornography as a means of supporting herself and her child. Ross' brilliant turn here is to expose the internet as a space of capitalistic voyeurism and inverted shame (which invites some critical re-readings of the cabaret form). The patriarchal violence that produces the status quo in Horváth's text is imaginatively applied to the digital sphere, which demonstrates how the reach of patriarchy today extends far beyond one's geographical borders.”

Ieva Tumanovičiūtė expresses a similar attitude, “An uneducated girl opposes her family by choosing love and finally remains all alone with a baby on her hands. She is forced to take up 'live' online pornography. As the scenes of the performance change, Marytė tells fairy stories into the microphone highlighting the fate of women in them - how they are condemned to wait, are married off to various creatures and etc.“

By developing Marytė's theme further, Ieva Tumanovičiūtė presents several national traits that, in her opinion, are represented through her picture, “The director and the playwright have grasped the mentality of an average, middle-class Lithuanian defined accurately by Marytė, 'I have always wanted to be a dancer. But, imagine, I wasn't allowed to. In general, my relatives don't understand much about art, books or something like that. Only - 'Where do you live?' 'What car make do you have?' 'Are you a wife already?' or 'When will you have kids?'” The life of the eleven characters of the performance is grim. Marytė can't escape such an environment even though she clearly feels that there is a different world, a different life beyond all this routine, money, business, flats and cars. Theatre critic Aušra Kaminskaitė specifies the mentality of a middle-class Lithuanian, “There are numerous so-called Lithuanian motifs in Tales from the Vienna Woods - from the funeral hymn Nearer, my God, to Thee to the traditional wedding customs of hanging a matchmaker and a fake bride and groom; from the eternal narrative that it's easier to earn money abroad without developing one's skills to unsuccessful emigration justified by love to the homeland.” The critic finishes her review with the conclusion that, “The performance tells how miserable people thrive in Lithuania.”

British critic Bryce Lease, on the other hand, emphasizes a bold decision of the director to question the historical themes that are highly sensitive to Lithuanians, “One of Ross' most controversial (and brave) choices was to question the role of Lithuanian partisans, who waged a guerrilla war against the Soviets between 1944-53. These are heroic figures-whose deaths are still problematically characterized as a form of genocide in Vilnius' Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights - that form the pinnacle of Lithuanian patriotism. When one woman recalls the sexual violence perpetrated by the partisans she is quickly silenced and told that she is selfish and ungrateful for their sacrifice.”

Kristina Steiblytė summarises that, “The performance does not allow the audience to identify themselves with the characters and reveals only the main moments of the life in the thicket. This way, the audience is told what everybody wishing to hear and believe can apply to themselves.” This, most probably, is one of the main strengths of  Tales from the Vienna Woods - an absolutely open work where every actor appears with their own position and every spectator can choose what to believe, what to reject and what to create if it seems important to the person reflecting on these themes. The only condition is that the audience must think.