By Eric J. Grimm
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fascination with melodrama inspired some of the most piercing works of cinema and stage in the 1970s and 80s, particularly as he focused the refined and ludicrous elements of the genre on complex women and queer characters. Third Space has updated one of his best works, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, in a gorgeous and vacuous production that mines the material for high camp with very little sincerity. Under the direction of Benjamin Viertel, Fassbinder’s darkly humorous drama about a woman’s breakdown is a frenetic comedy about a pathetic lesbian.
Viertel’s play is mostly (save for an awkwardly tacked on alternate ending) faithful to Fassbinder’s work, a chronicle of the quick love affair between petulant fashion designer, Petra (Caroline Gombe) and duplicitous aspiring model, Karin (Betsey Brown). The director has encouraged an atmosphere of high octane physical comedy and caterwauling abounds. Brown is the most successful of the bunch, playing Karin’s wide-eyed innocence and eventual brattiness at the heightened level of her costars but with great magnetism and without physical or vocal limitations. Gombe is a glamorous Petra, for sure, but a loud and unsympathetic one. Her line deliveries are big and calculated and her crying, perhaps by unfortunate design, is a fake act in which she smiles throughout.
Scenic designer Bryce Cutler and costume designer Emily Chalmers do some dazzling work here, creating a shimmering and gaudy atmosphere befitting Petra’s flamboyant personality. Her living room and clothes are an orgiastic disco nightmare that make the tiny New Ohio Theatre look sprawling. A more restrained directorial approach could have fulfilled the promise of the professional and transformative design.
The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant plays at New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St.) through March 11. For tickets, visit http://www.thirdspacetheater.org/the-bitter-tears-of-petra