Falling in Love With the Salt Princess


Perhaps the best test of whether something is a classic is not whether it maintains cultural currency over decades, or even centuries, but whether it can captivate all ages of children at any given historical moment. If a book, play, movie, or piece of music can manage that, then it is already nine-tenths of the way to immortality. The distance between twenty-one and retirement age may be bigger in chronological terms than that between toddler and teenager, but nothing is greater than the chasm of taste that yawns between the latter pair of unruly human animals.

With unforced artistry Die Salzprinzessin (The Salt Princess), an hour-long musical that since 2003 has been in the repertoire of the Descendants of Hans Wurst Puppet Theater (Hans Wurst Nachfahren) in Berlin’s Schöneberg District, dazzles and warms all ages with its radiance.

The story was freely adapted from a Brothers Grimm fairytale by Barbara Kilian, who with fellow actor and puppeteer Siegfried Heinzmann founded the theater in 1981, and moved to its present home in Schöneberg in 1993. That makes 2011 the group’s thirtieth anniversary, a long enough stretch for at least two generations of school children to have grown up with the theater’s diverse offerings. If my own inclinations provide any evidence, then parents are just as eager to return. Although nominally geared for children, these plays operate simultaneously on many levels, engaging the nominally more sophisticated adults not through winking innuendo, but through pure ingenuity.

The theater itself is a two-story building housing two intimate performing spaces, one larger than other. Low compared to the surrounding apartment blocks and nearby chestnut trees, the theater’s cheery yellow facade gives onto a terrace where drinks are served—cold ones in the summer, and warm ones into the autumn and even into winter. A couple of steps lead down to a semi-enclosed square where boule is sometimes played. Adjacent to this is a park with a fantastical play structure that, with its Escher-like collection of wobbling black PVC steps, bridges, platforms, and a steep slide flanked by an almost sadistic cross between a swing and a teeter-totter. The assemblage would cause many an Upper-West-Side mom to make sure that the numbers of both the family lawyer and doctor are stored in her cell phone and at the ready before unleashing the tots on an apparatus of such delight and danger. Kids, and a few brave adults, can run down some of their energy on this folly before and after the theater, while their elders monitor their own caffeine levels at the terrace and ponder the puppetry of parenthood.

Across the street from both park and theater is the spacious Winterfeldtplatz where one of Berlin’s most vibrant Saturday markets takes place. In this corner of Berlin there are many stages: kids clowning atop the PVC playground summit; the barkers of the market flogging the weekend’s last bouquets; and the Hans Wurst actors and their meter-long puppets making sense and nonsense of the world.

The unchanging faces of these puppets seem paradoxically capable of continual change. This expressivity derives partly from the handwork lavished on the figures, but even more from the skill of the puppeteers who stand behind the puppets and bring them to life, and who utter their lines without any attempt at ventriloquizing. This counterpoint between the actors’ own faces and that of their puppets creates a multi-layered dialog between wooden figure and human master, and often leads to humorous and touching juxtapositions of gesture and meaning.

The puppeteer’s art is both more obscure and more transparent than that of the human actor whose puppet is his own body; it’s as if one sees behind the shell of the stage persona and into an interior space usually off-limits to the spectator.  In the Paradox of the Actor of 1773, Denis Diderot described the actor’s profession as “shutting himself up in a great basket-work figure in which he is the soul.” At Hans Wurst, where serious and comic plays for adults are also performed in the evenings after the kids have been entertained and uplifted during the morning and afternoon, it is as if the wicker frame has been thrown off and the soul laid bare. What then of the soul within this soul? It is precisely this Russian doll-like aesthetic regression that makes the whole thing so endlessly fascinating and surprising.

Kilian populates her Salt Princess with both puppet and non-puppet characters.  From within the packed theater a human master of ceremonies, played with gruff and endearing disorder by Stephan Hellmann, stumbles hurriedly to the stage in search of his jacket, three-cornered hat and the story itself.  With help from the kids he finds all three. He then summons the Hans Wurst actors, who, after some obfuscations, agree to undertake the telling of the tale.

Necessary for such a story are of course the fairytale characters themselves, roles given to the puppets. First there’s the bored and unwittingly malevolent king, whom Kilian dubs Egomir—a name combining “Ego” with the German for “me”—and who is played by Hellmann. Egomir has three daughters. Two are bored back-biters, the one played with clipped vanity by Kilian, the other with self-serving relish by the bright and energetic Elena Raquet. The third, Philippa (played by Kilian yet again), is more honest and wiser than anyone else. The only character who approaches her humanity is the aged servant Johann, whose frayed but intact patience over a lifetime of servility to the king’s outsized ego is carved into the underling’s long-suffering face. The excellent Frank Sommer, an expressive and accurate singer and an actor capable of many tonalities and modulations of character, finds the comic sweet-spot between Johann’s unctuousness and his sighing antipathy towards arbitrary power.

Egomir tries to liven up his day by demanding that each of his daughters say how she loves him more than the other sisters. The mean-spirited sisters claim to harbor a love “bigger than all the world” and worth “more than the most precious jewels.” When Philippa’s turn comes she says simply that she loves her father “more than salt.” The king takes this as an insult and banishes the girl to the dark forest. From here, with the help of a band of friendly mice, Philippa finds her way into the service of the neighboring King Franz (Sommer again).

Kilian also introduces characters played without puppets: the courtiers, who gossip enviously about the growing friendship between King Franz and Philippa, masquerading as Philip. This palace coffee klatsch draws much of its humor from the fact that the human characters are far less sympathetic—less humane—than the wooden ones. To bring this self-referential touch to life, however, demands a cast whose members can shift gears instantly: from pampered princess to busybody chambermaid to slapstick mouse provocateuse. Only four talented actors bring more than a dozen, hilarious and deftly profiled characters, to the stage.

Among the many marvels of Kilian’s script is the economy of her plotting, which is itself driven by the imperatives of character. King Franz’s oft-repeated response to what he sees as positive developments, like being taught how to read by Philip/Philippa or being made to take a much-needed bath is: “That pleases me!” When the meddlings of the courtiers risk blowing the Salt Princess’s masculine cover, she throws off her manly clothes and admits that she is indeed Princess Philippa and not Philip. The astonished King Franz gathers his wits, and after a beat proclaims: “That pleases me!” And they kiss.

It is a fun, and wittily disentangling moment, even while it inevitably recalls the gender-bending scene in the country inn from Garbo’s King Christina, not to mention job lots of Shakespsearian double and triple cross-dressing.

Franz gets the girl as soon as she becomes one again, and from here its only a hop, skip, and jump to the denouement. A feast is planned and the visiting gourmand King Egomir is fed no-salt fare that doesn’t meet his kingly tastes, though such a diet would probably be better for his high-blood pressure.

The final bit of brilliance on Kilian’s part was to write extremely clever song lyrics and then turn to the Berlin composer Rainer Rubbert for the music. Rubbert has provided the incidental music for at least a dozen Hans Wurst Theater productions, as well as the score for another of the group’s musicals, The Bremen Town Musicians. It was for a performance of this piece , that I was last in the Hans Wurst Theatre in 2008.

2008 was also the year that Rubbert’s opera about the visionary writer Heinrich von Kleist, was premiered. The two hundredth anniversary of Kleist’s suicide in a Berlin lake comes this Monday, November 21st; a profile of Rubbert’s opera can be heard this Sunday at 10:00pm German time (4:00pm EST) on DeutschlandRadio . Like Kleist’s own work, Rubbert’s music for this gripping opera  can be both beautiful and unsettling.

That Rubbert’s creative breadth can extend from the hijinx and graspable moral lessons of a fairytale all the way to Kleist’s Romantic leap into eternity speaks to the range and ability of this extraordinary composer, who is as at home writing for the opera stage as he is for Berlin’s cabaret scene or for Hans Wurst. In both the “high” and the “low” his distinctive authorial voice—something beyond mere style—rings out. His music is often complex yet never pedantic or snobbish; it elevates without demeaning.

It is not easy music, but it more than rewards the efforts of getting it right. While difficult, Rainer’s score welcomes the Hans Wurst ensemble, whose members bring the music to crisp, characterful life. The augmented triads of the opening fanfare, a condensed overture of maybe a dozen seconds, capture both the pointless pomp of the egomaniacal king’s routine. Egomir’s opening song, of self-praise “I am toothsome / I am magnificent” (Ich bin köstlich/ich bin prächtig) turns cleverly on a culinary metaphor, but is set with curt diction and tromping harmonies perfectly attuned to monarchic rule by feckless fiat. Stranded in the woods, Philippa’s injunction to the faithful Johann to bring her a “Man’s Garment”  (Männer Gewand) yields a song in which librettist and composer involve the servant as soloist, the human choir, and a falsetto mouse; the ostinato minor bass-line of the refrain evokes the wanderings of the heroine amidst the gloomy forest, and projects an affect both baroque and bluesy, uncannily matching the historic setting and Kilian’s sly updatings. King Franz’s “Taking a Bath is Wonderful” (Baden ist wunderbar) carries along a hygienic message on the music’s evanescent whimsy.  With staggered contrapuntal skeins Rubbert captures the solipsistic chattering of the courtiers; here musical difficulty becomes an ingenious means for the expression of mean-spirited frivolity and a chance for the singing-actors to enjoy and challenge themselves.

In Rubbert’s wonderful songs to Kilian’s pithy texts and in his vivid instrumental interludes, melodies are convincing and memorable precisely because they defeat expectation; harmonies fulfill their goals through devious and delightful feints; counterpoint is made to represent machination and distrust of convention rather than a subservience to it. That these musical qualities captivate the oldest and youngest in the audience is testament to Rubbert’s musical talent and theatrical sense, and to a happy collaboration between lyricist and composer.

Last Sunday’s performance came on one of the first brisk autumnal days in Berlin and was packed with people of all ages, even a goodly number of adults who were unattached to kids and had come for a rare performance of the piece by a bewigged and virtuosic five-piece orchestra, instead of the recording that usually accompanies the singers. According to the theater The Salt Princess is appropriate for four-years-old and up. I’m not sure if all the young ones had been made to show their driver’s licenses. I think some three year olds got in, but I’m not planning to inform the authorities.  In the event, there was plenty of laughter and full-throated observation during the show, not to mention a frenzied kiddy cougher two rows up from the stage.  These realities were taken by the actors not as obstacles but as reasons for theater-making in the first place: that this unsurpassed ensemble cannot be derailed by scratchy throats, runny noses and off-topic utterances, but instead thrives on them, only confirms that this is art for a lifetime.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com