In A Year with 13 Moons

Bill Camp and Babs Olusanmokum in In A Year with 13 Moons. (Richard Termine photo / May 8, 2013)

In a Year With 13 Moons

Through May 18 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, corner of Chapel and York streets, New Haven. (203) 432-1234, http://www.yalerep.org. Based on the film and screenplay by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Adapted for the stage by Bill Camp and Robert Woodruff. Directed by Woodruff.

 

On a recent episode of his new podcast talk show, Norm MacDonald got into a hilarious discussion with Billy Bob Thornton about how ridiculous it is when actors are called "brave."

There are those who will surely call the 50-something actor Bill Camp's portrayal of Elvira — a despondent, abused and endlessly traumatized transsexual reaching the end of her wits in late-1970s Germany — a "brave" choice. Yet those of us who've had the thrill of seeing Camp act in virtually anything — Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet (at Hartford Stage in 1995), Charley the neighbor in Death of a Salesman last year on Broadway, Notes from Underground at the Rep a few seasons ago — know that he can pull complex psychological insights and identity issues out of roles that many actors wouldn't even see as significant. Camp embodies characters brilliantly. Bravery has nothing to do with it.

A character like Elvira is a grand playground for an actor with Bill Camp's peculiar talents. A gray, dreary, condemned playground in the soulless German financial center of Frankfurt, but a playground nonetheless. There are scenes of great physical strengths and others of extreme vulnerability. Modernist moments and epic Greek-tragic monologues. Empowerment, loathing, friendship, isolation. The great "New German Cinema" mastermind Rainer Werner Fassbinder, upon whose film this new stage adaptation is based, provides the blueprint, but there's no reason for this superlative production to exist without Camp guiding it. He makes Elvira a stage star that could have been played by Tallulah Bankhead.

The Rep's In a Year With 13 Moons regularly proclaims itself as a lavish tribute not just to the film on which it's based but to Fassbinder himself. A filmed interview with the auteur is part of a mix of clips and projections that floods the last quarter of this intermissionless montage-filled show. His name and the dates of his birth and death (he died in 1982 at the age of 37) are flashed at the end of the show.

Fassbinder's films had a raw, immediate, seat-of-pants style. The filmmaker would have an idea, grab devoted members of his ensemble, and have a film done within weeks. Given the haste and frenzy with which they are made, it's surprising how professional and well-structured Fassbinder's films are. Also how, even when the plots are taken from the lives of his friends and colleagues and hangers-on, Fassbinder can makes themes universal. In a Year With 13 Moons, for example, was released in 1978 and was inspired by Fassbinder's lover Armin Meier, who'd committed suicide earlier that same year. It's known as Fassbinder's most personal film yet also works allegorically as an indictment of late-20th century cities, the experiments of the Nazis and conventional romantic melodramas.

A key theme here is loneliness. "Everybody is lonely because you're meant to be alone" is one of the many lamentable summings-up in this distressing chronicle of poor Elvira's final days. For In a Year With 13 Moons, rather than let Bill Camp emote in a vacuum, Woodruff fills the stage with things that Camp's Elvira can bounce off of. There are 10 people in the show's acting ensemble, including sterling talents such as exalted experimental actress Joan MacIntosh (who plays the key supporting role of Sister Gudrun, a part played in the film by Fassbinder's own mother), and Jesse J. Perez knows exactly how much clowning he can add to defuse the tension of a drama without unsettling the balance. Composer/musician/sound designer Michael Attias and Satoshi Takeishi comprise a two-man pit orchestra whose contributions range from creepily crooning the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" to programming computerized effects to grabbing a sax and blowing wild.

Robert Woodruff's trademark high-tech, clinical-design, projection-heavy, intentionally distraction-filled directorial style wouldn't seem at first to fit with Rainer Werner Fassbinder's scruffy underground cinematic statements. But the gloss adds to the grit, and creates a colorful canvas on which Elvira can emote. Embracing Fassbinder without aping him, and letting Bill Camp cut loose on his own terms, A Year With 13 Moons is an ecstasy of theatrical surprises.