BERLIN — “Bye Chris” and “Welcome home Frank” proclaimed stickers on the lampposts around the Haus der Berliner Festspiele here before Tuesday’s performance of “Faust,” a production by Frank Castorf and his former theater, the Berlin Volksbühne.
Castorf led the Volksbühne for a quarter-century before he was dismissed to make room at the top for Chris Dercon, a former director of London’s Tate Modern gallery.
Dercon took office last September, but then, a little more than two weeks ago, he resigned suddenly and immediately, bringing one of the world’s quirkiest artistic debacles to an untimely end.
Dercon’s short, fitful tenure at the former East Berlin theater was doomed for many reasons, including hostility from the public and politicians to the Belgian director’s approach of transforming an ensemble theater, with a full-time staff of over 200, into a festival venue for visiting performers.
This was a huge upheaval for the house, which, under Castorf’s leadership, had built up a uniquely radical repertoire of productions featuring many of Germany’s most daring and experimental theater-makers.
“Faust,” directed by Castorf and first presented at the Volksbühne in 2017, is one of 10 works selected for this year’s Theatertreffen, the springtime festival that celebrates the best of German-language theater.
In addition to two shows from Berlin, this year’s lineup features acclaimed productions from Vienna, Zurich, Basel, Munich and Hamburg.
Castorf is at least a generation older than the other directors invited to Theatertreffen. But if “Faust” finds Castorf up to his old tricks, the production never feels like a tired rehash.
This self-critical staging has enough exuberance, fresh energy and humor to sustain interest over an extended running time. Unlike many shows by legendary directors whose glory days are behind them, this “Faust” never feels like self-parody.
There’s nothing quite like a Frank Castorf production. His shows are notoriously long, intricately contrived collages of texts, which have sometimes been likened to long-haul flights with numerous detours. You never quite know where you’re headed, if the airplane’s going to make it or if you’ll be going down in flames. After seven hours — a normal length for a Castorf extravaganza — the relief of the curtain call is staggering.
Castorf uses his source materials — in this case, Goethe’s two-part tome, one of the most important works in German literature, in which the title character makes a bargain with the devil — as a theoretical scaffolding around which to construct his eclectic and wide-ranging investigations. These often involve a heavy dose of Marxism and post-colonial theory. (For all his postmodern credentials, though, his shockingly crude depiction of women often seems misogynistic, something that German audiences are strangely unconcerned by.)
Castorf is equally unconcerned with the Mephistophelean pact at the center of Goethe’s play, instead concentrating on the arrogance and violence of European conquest (specifically France’s colonial occupation of Algeria) and the world of prostitution in 19th century Paris, as depicted in Émile Zola’s novel “Nana.”
There are also quotes or ideas from Frantz Fanon and Paul Celan, whose famous poem “Death Fugue” is militantly declaimed in French by Abdoul Kader Traoré, an actor and rapper from Burkina Faso. “Europeans have ceased to be the subjects of history; they have become its objects,” Faust says, quoting Jean-Paul Sartre’s analysis of the Algerian war of independence. Castorf seems to view “Faust” as the product of an impotent and irrelevant civilization that should be overthrown.
Castorf’s method is often described as deconstructive, but here it seems to work more by way of association.
He’s far less interested in Goethe’s text than the intellectual, cultural and historical ideas he relates it to. So when Faust seduces and abandons the virginal Margarete, it inspires an extended detour into Zola’s “Nana.”
When, in part two of the play, Faust becomes a wealthy landowner, Castorf makes it a pretext for some lengthy scenes in Algeria, which include footage from Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film “The Battle of Algiers.”
Throughout the long evening, a loud, zany soundtrack that includes opera, cheesy fantasy film soundtracks, Jacques Brel, Tom Waits and Blood, Sweat & Tears sustains a near-manic level of intensity.
Montage has always been a key concept for Castorf. In addition to its strikingly cinematic aspects, the production ingeniously crosscuts between both parts of Goethe’s tragedy (which are radically different from each other), with the play often doubling back on itself in what suggests an endless loop.
The ending, in which the three main characters quarrel about whether Faust won or lost his wager with Mephisto, is a theatrical masterstroke worth waiting for. Yet it is also one of the precious few places where the production actively engages with the meaning of Goethe’s play, since Castorf stubbornly refuses to confront the moral and philosophical quandaries of Germany’s most emblematic text.
The fearless Valery Tscheplanowa gives the most consistently exciting performance in a variety of roles, including Margarete and Nana. The dynamic Alexander Scheer (in the role of Lord Byron, whose poem “Manfred” is quoted from at length) and the high-strung Daniel Zillmann (playing a Parisian theater director) easily outshine the play’s central duo: Martin Wuttke plays Faust with a thuggish gruffness that quickly gets tiresome; Marc Hosemann’s muscular and mischievous Mephisto was more impressive — until this endurance test of a production took its toll and he began to lose his voice toward the end of the evening.
Aleksandar Denic’s revolving set is brilliant and intricate, incorporating a club, a haunted house and an extremely realistic mock-up of the Stalingrad metro station in Paris, complete with subway platform and train.
As is often the case in a Castorf production, much, if not most, of the action occurs beyond the audience’s view and is captured by roving cameras (fluidly shot by Andreas Deinert and Mathias Klütz; seamlessly edited by Jens Crull and Maryvonne Rieeldheimer) and then projected onto a variety of onstage screens and surfaces.
This “Faust” is a monument to the Castorf era and says far more about the director, his singular approach and his obsessions than anything else. When the Volksbühne first presented it last year, the theater’s website billed it as a “mammoth project by confident actors and artists who have trained for 25 years to make it possible.” Even if this is a somewhat self-aggrandizing assessment, it’s hard to disagree.
It is a fitting coda to Castorf’s furious and challenging quarter-century reign.