The silent, hidden horrors that lurk in some convalescent hospitals may be among elderly people's worst fears, but are they as bad as prisoner of war camps? Yes, says Felix Mitterer's monologue drama, "Siberia," opening tonight at the Complex in Hollywood, the first of the leading Austrian dramatist's 18 plays to receive an American staging.
Still, Mitterer, wants to make something very clear. "I did not invent the notion that old folks' homes are like camps during wartime," he says, wagging a finger while sitting in an office at the Austrian Consulate in West Los Angeles. "An old man, a veteran of the Nazi army, whom I talked with in a home, compared the bad conditions he was enduring to the camp in Siberia where he was imprisoned during the war. Others may call it an exaggeration, but for him, it was very real."
The solitary figure in "Siberia" is an old man trapped in a convalescent facility, beset by bed sores and bitterness at how his son and daughter-in-law have cast him out of his own house. Inside his head, however, he still moves far beyond the confines of his bed.
Known for bringing memories from his own troubled childhood, Mitterer, 45, is now exploring issues of the aged and infirm.
"He is, like so many of my characters, an outsider," Mitterer observes. "Growing up, that is exactly how I felt, and the suffering I endured makes it easy for me to understand the suffering of others."
Born the 13th child of a widowed mother, Mitterer was adopted by farm laborers in Austria's Tyrolean region. He clashed with them as well as his teachers, but it was one of his teachers who spotted his writing talent when he was 12. "She pushed me, like no one else did," he recalls. Terrible in school but prolific with prose, Mitterer managed to get a children's book published and his first play, "No Room for Idiots," staged by the time he was 29.
A writer for stage, TV, film and radio, Mitterer is also an actor, with film credits for John Goldschmidt's "Egon Schiele," about the \o7 fin de siecle\f7 painter, and Robert Dornhelm's "Requiem for Dominic." He admits that it may be the actor in him who has found fault with a couple of past performances of "Siberia," which has been translated into eight languages and most recently staged in Stockholm. "I would like to see a younger actor--but with a head of gray hair--perform 'Siberia.' It's difficult for the young to know what the old go through, and seeing someone their age might help them understand.
"Now that I've said that, I don't mean that I'm unhappy with Alan Mandell performing it in Hollywood," said Mitterer, referring to the production here featuring the 65-year-old actor (directed by Louis Fantasia). Everything Mitterer has heard about Mandell has been good, the playwright says, which isn't surprising: Mandell is known for his interpretations of the work of Samuel Beckett, whose work also influenced "Siberia."
With such literary leanings, Mitterer might seem favored more by critics than the public, but in fact he's more popular than critically acclaimed. While the critics sometimes go after him, he nevertheless has become the leading Austrian voice of a movement once led in Germany by filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder and playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz: the Volkstucke (people's plays), which deal with issues of everyday characters. In Mitterer's work, they tend to live in his native mountainous homeland, the Austrian Tyrol.
"He is unique in the German language theater," says Austrian filmmaker Thomas Rigler, who has long followed Mitterer's work. "It's as if a writer who lives in Idaho and deals with Idaho issues were to have his plays done in New York--and that they'd be accepted in the big city. No one else in Austria or Germany has managed this. He has no problem going back and forth between the city and country, perhaps because he lives in Innsbruck, which is a very sophisticated city right in the middle of the Alps."
Sometimes, the plays are about and for a specific environment, such as "Munde," which was performed in 1990 by a cast of professionals and amateurs on the top of Mt. Munde in the Tyrol.
"The audience had to hike three hours to the top of the mountain, watch the play--which is about a group of company workers on holiday who had just climbed to the top of Mt. Munde--then camp out overnight," says Mitterer. "In the morning, the audience climbed back down the mountain." Another work, "The Vulture Lady," was staged on cliffs in a Tyrol canyon. Yet another, "The Play in the Mountain," was staged by actor Klaus Maria Brandauer on a platform floating on a lake in an Austrian salt mine.
"After those projects," Mitterer says with a sigh, "I just want to go back home." There he is collaborating with his 13-year-old daughter, Anna, on a children's book titled "Madame Marie the Opera Cat, or In Search of the High C."
"When Anna could read," he recalls, "she kept asking me to write a book for her. Each year she asked, and each year I kept putting it off. Last year, she stopped asking, and came up with this story. It's her plot, her characters. She's the boss."
When Mitterer is told that Anna came up with her tale at the same age that he began writing, he's startled into a moment's silence.
"Well," he said, "what do you think of that?"