Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Blood on the Cat’s Neck presented by Torn Space Theater is an erratic labyrinth of unresolved psychological problems, explosive emotions and unspoken desires that is so overpowering it looks nothing less than surreal. At the same time however, there isn’t a single line in the winding dialogues which is not genuinely human and thus close to our own experiences and thoughts.
This is precisely what makes Fassbinder one of the greatest ideologues of contemporary cinema and theater – the ability to bring together so many different facets of reality and come up with a work that seems to be out of this world. In Blood on the Cat’s Neck this ethereal atmosphere is enhanced by the presence of a member of another planet, Phoebe Zeitgeist, who is sent to the Earth in order to report on the state of democracy.
The play, under Dan Shanahan’s direction, can be roughly divided into two parts – the first one, in which the action is driven by the eight earthlings, four women and four men, who converse with each other in series of changing pairs, and a second one in which Phoebe herself takes over the scene and carries out her mission.
As Dan Shanahan himself remarked after the end of the performance, Fassbinder has left no specific stage directions in his script, so the entire concept of the stage and costume design has been created by the Torn Space Theater production crew. The set designer, Kristina Siegel, talks about the “clinical white” of the stage and the white costumes of the eight humans merging with the surrounding space. In sharp contrast to them, Phoebe is dressed in black, to separate herself not just from the appearance of the human beings but also from their moral and emotional weaknesses and sensibilities.
Indeed, the spatial construction of the stage induces associations with the lens of a camera, the camera through which Phoebe inspects the life of the humans. Instead of the proverbial fourth wall, here Fassbinder breaks the first wall, the barrier between front stage and back stage, opening up the space between the voyeuristic alien and her observees and hence between them and the audience who feels somewhat uneasy, or perhaps on the contrary – a bit more relaxed – knowing it is not the only one watching what is going on on the stage.
Phoebe is by far not just a voyeur, at least not a conventional one, for she is not concerned so much with the actual actors she is observing, with their specific characters and traits, as she is with their interactions. The figures themselves matter to her to the extent to which she is able to learn to copy them perfectly in order to use their own weapons against them. And their weapons are precisely what they use to harm and humiliate each other – their words. Soon, it becomes clear that the suffering they cause each other through them is, despite the way it may actually appear, not deliberate; that perhaps the exchange of deeply-penetrating, emotionally-condensed phrases each pair utilizes is in actuality a monologue derived not from the desire to inflict pain on the other but rather to get rid of the pain inside one’s own soul and conscience.
In this sense, even the harshest insults we hear from the ruthless Lover or the hotshot Model, the sadomasochistic Teacher or the coarse Policeman, are not meant so much to crush their opponents, as they are to help the speaker express the pressing psychological issues within them. Relatively early on it becomes evident that the topics regarding material difficulties such as the need for money, secure accommodation, a reliable job or a stable partner are really just the surface of a much deeper matter – of the sense of security and love whose lack leads to disastrous instances of miscommunication and emotional (self-)abuse.
What the entangled paths of the verbal expression of these problems ultimately lead to is by itself a catastrophe whose external executor becomes Phoebe Zeitgeist. In the second part of the play, when she takes the reigns of the action in her own hands, it is as if she embarks on a bloody crusade to free the world (hers or ours?) from the presence of the poor losers whose helpless tirades she’s been listening thus far. What makes the scenes to follow even gloomier is the feeling that such a tragic fate can hypothetically be reserved not just for Fassbinder’s characters but basically for every one of us, since we are, in our suppressed desires and fears, not too much different than the people in the play.
As was already pointed out, Phoebe is not just a voyeur. But she isn’t a mere witness of the verbal and moral crimes of the eight protagonists either. She is the council of the jury at a trial personified, and not just that – she get to be the judge, executing the sentence, too. In a way however, she is also the convict committing a crime after she has already been brought to the trial organized by the audience. It has embraced her out-of-this-world look and presence on stage, has taken it for granted and has assumed throughout the play what she might do in the end. She does not disappoint us and fulfills her share of the deal. Should we be proud of ourselves for correctly predicting what she is about to do? Or should we be ashamed of ourselves, of the protagonists, of humanity in general, for letting itself fall prey to an alien vampire because of its irreversible vices and weaknesses? Is that all we can pass on to an extraterrestrial visitor to our planet – violence and cruelty?
Torn Space Theater’s production and the amazing play of the actors will make you think about these and many more issues, whether you like it or not. Because, as a character in the play says, “You can’t avoid suffering.” But, as another one exclaims, “When you’re unhappy, you have to talk about it.” And that’s exactly what Blood on the Cat’s Neck does and why it is still so important today, more than three decades after it was first written.