Stage Door Review 2020

Casimir and Caroline

Monday, January 20, 2020


by Ödön von Horváth, translated by Holger Syme, adapted by Paolo Santalucia, Holger Syme & The Howland Company, directed by Paolo Santalucia

The Howland Company, Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto

January 16-February 9, 2020

Rankin: “Principles are for losers”

When I was in Berlin in 2007, I made a point of seeing Kasimir und Karoline (1932) at the Deutsches Theater because I thought that was the kind of play which, though famous in Germany, would never be staged in North America. Its author Ödön von Horváth (1901-38) was a Hungarian whose native language was German. Works by other Germanophone contemporaries of Brecht, Francophone contemporaries of Molière or Anglophone contemporaries of Shakespeare are usually met with lack of interest by North American theatre producers who believe audiences only want to see plays by the most famous authors.

Now The Howland Company is righting that wrong done to Horváth by presenting the North American premiere of Casimir and Caroline. The Howland production is a very loose adaptation that relocates the action from Munich shortly after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 to present-day Toronto complete with smartphones and social media. Though it also streamlines the action, cuts a number of characters and modifies the ending, the adaptation is still true to the spirit of the play and to the nature of the principal figures. The result is a fascinating glimpse of a playwright with a dramatic sense unlike any other and a world view that is uncannily contemporary.

Horváth’s play originally was set during Oktoberfest in Munich. In a series of short scenes Horváth follows several characters as they group and regroup during the festival. To find a parallel to this complex structure, director Paolo Santalucia and the other adaptors have reimagined the action as taking place at an office party on the top floor of a company in downtown Toronto. As in the original Casimir (Alexander Crowther) and Caroline (Hallie Seline) are engaged and Casimir does not want to attend the party even though Caroline does. Casimir does not want to attend, as in the in original, because his boss Rankin (James Graham) has just fired him.

While alone at the party Caroline attracts the attention of Sanders (Michael Ayres), the head of men’s clothing. Both shy people, Caroline and Sanders come to like each other almost immediately. Caroline unfortunately has also attracted the attention of Rankin, who egotistically believes he is superior to both Sanders and Casimir, who both try to re-establish contact with Caroline when Rankin is absent.

In Horváth’s original, Rankin is sidelined by a collapse while driving a car and is saved only by Caroline’s quick thinking. In the Howland adaptation Rankin is sidelined by Shira (Kimwun Perehinec) from the head office in Montreal who fires Rankin before his list sexually appraising his female workers is widely known. Rankin’s collapse and his desire to take Caroline for a drive still appear in the adaptation to different purposes.

In mood and overall story Casimir and Caroline is most like Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (1602), his anti-Romeo and Juliet, about the breakup of a romantic couple in a corrupt world where virtue, trust and fidelity cannot survive. The major difference is that Horváth’s characters are ordinary people, not players in an epic struggle. A war between nations is not the symbol of the broken world the characters live in but the war between individuals for money, status and power. There is no place in Horváth’s world for virtue any more than in Shakespeare, as Rankin notes, “Principles are for losers”.

Yet, what makes Horváth’s play even more fascinating than its critique of society is its critique of life itself. Horváth has his characters ask questions like “Why am I saying this?”, “Why am I doing this?”, “What does my life mean?” Horváth shows that materialism does not yield meaning sufficient to make life worthwhile except for those few who feel temporary success is enough. In this way Horváth’s plays asks existential questions a decade before the plays of Sartre or Camus.

Despite the play’s title, Casimir and Caroline is truly an ensemble piece, the title characters’ breakup functioning as only as the prime example of the falling apart of other friendships and relationships throughout the action. Horváth paints a picture of a cruel world in which people fall into two camps – those who humiliate others and those who are humiliated. Of the latter at least three characters are responsible for humiliating themselves.

Of these the prime example is Casimir himself. Ashamed of having lost his job, he assumes that Caroline is also ashamed of him. Alexander Crowther’s performance makes the character’s self-destruction painful to watch. The more his Casimir begs Caroline not to leave him the more we sees that his neediness is driving her away. This cycle repeats at every encounter between the two until Caroline has no choice but to escape a man who makes himself appear so emotionally dependent on her.

The Caroline of Hallie Seline is in a different position. When the action begins she has already taken a step to separate herself from Casimir’s influence by deciding to attend the party. As is not unusual for the newly engaged, she wants to have a final taste of freedom before settling down to marriage. As she discovers, there are other men in the world who are attracted to her – the pleasant Sanders and the unpleasant Rankin. Seline is excellent in showing Caroline’s mixture of surprise at the attention of other men as well as the doubts it causes her in evaluating its impact on her relationship with Casimir.

James Graham’s Rankin (Kommerzienrat Rauch in the original) begins as the most obnoxious character of the group by praising himself and demeaning all the others around him. As it turns out he is one of Horváth’s parallels to Casimir. When Rankin loses his job in this adaptation, he has an onstage meltdown in the lead-off to a karaoke session in which he humiliates himself through his pleas to be forgiven by all those he has so recently wronged. Graham perfectly details the complete implosion of Rankin’s overweening pride to reveal the former bully as a grovelling mess.

Counter to Rankin is Kimwun Perehinec as Shira (the male Landgerichtsdirektor Speer in the original). Perehinec in one of her best ever performances makes Shira the iciest, haughtiest character imaginable. She points out others’ insignificance without even raising her voice as if she were coolly stating a matter of fact. Rankin’s loud abuse comes off as childish compared to the supreme unflappability Perehinec lends Shira. Horváth suggests that a person like Shira is one of the few who can survive in the world because they are completely without morals or compassion.

If Rankin and Shira are a parallel to Casimir and Caroline among the upper management, Ellie and Mary (Elli and Maria in the original) are their parallel between friends in among the secretarial class. Shruti Kothari’s Ellie mercilessly insults Mary in the guise of trying to toughen her up. Kothari not so surreptitiously conveys that dressing down Mary is a malign pleasure for Ellie in itself. Meanwhile, Veronica Hortiguela makes it abundantly clear that Mary’s desire to be like her idol Shira is totally hopeless. Mary is the third character in the play to undergo embarrassing self-humiliation when she finally gets up the courage to meet Shira and can do nothing but display her own utter inadequacy.

Strangely, the couple who function best are the petty criminal Frank (Der Merkl Franz in the original) and his girlfriend Liz (Erna in the original). Cameron Laurie endows Frank with a total disdain for the rest of the world and its judgements which makes him a opposites-attract best friend for the weak-willed Casimir. Frank can’t help but shower Liz with this general disdain but she, powerfully played by Caroline Toal, fights back. Gradually, we come to see that the struggle between them is paradoxically the sign of a stronger bond between them than exists between Casimir and Caroline.

In other roles are the two naturally kindest characters in the this adaptation – Sanders (the tailor Schürzinger in the original) played by Michael Ayres and the intern Trevor (with no direct counterpart in the original) played by Michael Chiem. Initially with Ayres’s gentle, courteous Sanders we feel that Caroline has found a much more suitable boyfriend than the over-emotional Casimir. But, as the action progresses in this adaption, Ayres carefully shows how Sanders’s affection of Caroline begins to cause him to try to hold on to her by making her pity him. We thus see a possible reflection of how Casimir’s relationship may have begun and why it subsequently deteriorated.

Chiem’s Trevor, the popsicle server at the party, is the prime source of comedy in the play. He is repeatedly derided by Shira as an ignorant millennial in the adaptation but his enthusiastic explanation of what he likes and knows only confirms Shira’s assessment. To her credit Shira does perceive a strength in Trevor despite his lack of knowledge. She can hardly expect that this strength will be the strength of moral convictions which Chiem defiantly demonstrates so well, convictions of which Shira is so devoid.

Throughout the action Horváth makes us look at the conflicts between people both up close and at an ironic distance. The passing of a zeppelin at the very beginning, the only event that captures the attention of all the characters at once, is a sign both of every individual’s smallness and of what individuals can achieve if they work together. Liz’s frequent reference to the stars and how their presence reminds her of our insignificance is an idea that forces us to see the personal tragedies of the characters as meaningless when viewed in the grand scheme of things. Frank’s references to death point out that other infinity that mocks anything mere mortals consider important.

Though it is very good of the adaptors to edit out the freak show that is part of the original, Casimir and Caroline does not really need to be so heavily adapted to the present day or the language so coarsened to be effective. A writer like Horváth possessed our own present world view that so inextricably blends the comic and the tragic and that sees people trying sometimes in vain to come to terms with their ultimate insignificance. To see his characters as part of the world of 1932 rather than the present would highlight Horváth’s modernity in its own way.

As North American theatre-goers we have to be extremely grateful to The Howland Company for bring Ödön von Horváth and his Casimir and and Caroline finally to the general attention of the public. Let’s hope that this production inspires Howland and others to look at many other important works that demonstrate that we are not the first to have looked at a world governed by hierarchy and materialism and found it wanting.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) The ensemble of Casimir and Caroline looking at a passing zeppelin; Hallie Seline as Caroline,Cameron Laurie as Frank and Alexander Crowther as Casimir; the ensemble of Casimir and Caroline. © 2020 Dahlia Katz.

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