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Intense Fassbinder drama has fallen into master hands

Dan Shanahan's dark and edgy Torn Space Theater began life five years ago with a play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the leading director of New German Cinema and a onetime actor in a group called "Anti-Theater," a troupe given to avant garde adaptations of the classics.

Intense and driven, Fassbinder churned out films full of social criticism, sex and politics, gaining applause and barbs before succumbing to a nightcap of sleeping pills and cocaine. Gone in 1982 at age 36. "Spent," said friends and foes.

Fassbinder often made films of his own stage work, a case in point being "The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant," a troubled story of looking for love in all the wrong places, a dreamy piece, a "fragile fairy tale," some say. It's strange and full of wince and wonder. A Fassbinder and Dan Shanahan rematch. Perfect.

Briefly, this trancelike peek into the world of Petra Von Kant goes like this: Petra is a clothes designer, well connected, divorced, works out of her posh-yet-sterile apartment, where a mute, observant but exploited Girl Friday, Marlene, answers to every whim. Into Petra's life comes tall and willowy Karin, street savvy and opportunistic. Petra is smitten and invites Karin to move in. Trouble starts almost immediately. It's all about power and possession -- lesbian themes are secondary -- and Petra finds that she can't control Karin, why competitiveness doesn't seem to be in the younger girl's vocabulary and learns too late that she has been used. Marlene watches silently and enables; a so-called friend, Sidonie, secretly snickers at Petra's dilemma; a daughter in need of motherly attention is further alienated; and Petra's own mother arrives amid a violent and gin-soaked tirade only to once again leave helpless and saddened. Marlene packs it in, too. There are indeed Petra's "bitter tears." There's not a soul left to dry them.

There is plenty to praise here. Shanahan's direction is again wise, using music as diverse as The Platters and Richard Wagner to underscore or portend. There is ample threat, cruelty and cattiness but in equal proportions. The languid pace -- the right-angled, exaggerated rampway walks to nowhere are repetitive, ultimately annoying and one-too-many vacant stares are Fassbinder staples. Dan Shanahan knows that these things are necessary but doesn't linger on them.

The cast, all women, is laudable. Kelly Meg Brennan gives a bravura performance as Petra, intimidating here, impulsive there, the approach to final implosion gradual and operatic. A stunning role, Brennan beautifully garbed by Melissa Meola -- with credit to Brennan's "expansive closet." The extraordinary Brennan is aided by Kara Mckenney as Karin, likable but maddening; the always precise Katie White; Anna Maria Gillespie as the submissive Marlene; Sharon Strait and Rebecca Globus. Pain and hate, manipulation and a world of hurt on display in "The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant." Torn Space Theater is again back with more of the unusual and seldom seen.


"The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant"

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Drama presented by Torn Space through Dec. 1 at the Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle, 612 Fillmore Ave.

For more information, call 812-5733 or visit

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