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Arts

Miss Piggy takes down Trump in Elfriede Jelinek's new play

The message in Nobel Prize-winning playwright Elfriede Jelinek's one-woman monologue is clear: 'The king is guilty.' The Austrian artist plays with pop culture in the work that premiered in Trump's hometown: New York.

Miss Piggy never harmed anyone.

But there she is, blonde hair, big snout - and eyes profusely bleeding - on a large projection screen in a Manhattan theater, the main symbol of Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek's latest theatrical work.

In the Jelinek treatment, the silly "Muppets" character becomes a sort of tragic figure. Miss Piggy thus transformed is one of many tools the 2004 Nobel Prize winner uses to produce a caustic commentary on President Donald Trump's victory, called "On the Royal Road: The Burgher King."

Monday night saw the world premiere of the work, a one-woman reading in a small university theater in Midtown. It is scheduled to get a full staging at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg this fall.

The repurposing of Miss Piggy

Jelinek's jarring use of a beloved symbol from US pop culture is just one way her approach differs from those Americans have seen since Trump's victory in November.

Elfriede Jelinek (picture-alliance/dpa/K. Techt)

Playwright Elfriede Jelinek was not present at Monday night's premiere

So far, artistic responses to Trump in New York City and the rest of the country have largely taken the form of graffiti, performance art and artsy demonstrations. Last summer, a humiliating nude statue of Trump in Union Square received international attention.

In contrast, Jelinek takes an erudite - and acerbic - approach in her Trump play, the latest of her works that explicitly deal with political issues.

"Let me be, for I am ill and understand nothing! I don't understand what I ordered here. Is it a birdhouse or a new garage?" the unnamed speaker, dressed all in black, declares early in the show. She then abruptly says, "I don't want to talk about my mother, not ever. I couldn't care less if everything's in order with me!"

That's the tone for roughly the next hour, when the speaker, played on Monday by Masha Dakić, recites line after line of musings, rants and pleas from a variety of perspectives. You could think of her as a one-person Greek chorus - with schizophrenia.

Greek chorus redux

The perspectives include a frightened immigrant or refugee: "We are American, but now no longer," Dakić says at the end of a riff on Trump's proposed border wall.

Then there is a comment on Trump's supporters: "Everyone says what he says. Everyone, everyone assaults what he's always assaulted."

Masha Dakić in Elfriede Jelinek's On the Royal Road: The Burgher King im CUNY, NY (Shant Shahrigian)

Masha Dakić performed the one-woman reading in New York

As the play cycles through these and other voices, Jelinek seems to touch on the Old Testament, German intellectual history, Freudian psychology, the US housing bubble, and big banks, while also managing to squeeze in the suggestion that Trump is impotent.

Jelinek might be at her most authoritative when "On the Royal Road" alludes to Austria and Germany's crimes during World War II, one of the main themes of the 70-year-old's novels, poems and essays.

'The king is guilty'

"The king is to blame for the city's demise," Dakić says during one of the piece's more sober passages. "The king is guilty and now we know it. So now we're responsible."

The verdict is reminiscent of what many came to feel about Austrians and Germans who supported Hitler. It sounds like Jelinek is applying the same judgment to Trump supporters, if not all Americans.

After the performance, Dakić, director Stefan Džeparoski and Jelinek's longtime English translator Gitta Honegger took questions from the audience of roughly 70 people. The sparse theater, smack in the middle of liberal Manhattan, was unsurprisingly void of anyone willing to identify as a Trump supporter.

President Donald Trump (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

There are similarities between Trump and Miss Piggy's hair, pointed out one audience member

Honegger, who communicated with Jelinek throughout the composition of "The Royal Road," took the Hitler-Trump comparison head-on.

"Having grown up after the war and hearing the stories about the Weimar Republic and this guy Hitler," Honegger said, "I don't want to make a crass comparison. But that intellectuals can not think that this is even possible - that somebody with a brain like this and behavior and an emptiness like this can be a president - this is what she and we have been talking about."

Modernist Muppet

Then there was Miss Piggy, peering down at the audience through bloody eyes, sometimes addressed or invoked by Dakić's character throughout the show.

"Her hair is strange like Trump's," noted audience member Marleen Barr. "When Jelinek uses Miss Piggy, is she equating him with Trump? (…) Trump hates more than anything to be laughed at. Is this like ludicrous 'Schwein'-time for Trump?"

"I think you got Elfriede," Honegger replied with a smile. "She always talks about (wanting) to make the big small - to cut it down. Then she elevates Trump to Oedipus, but that then makes him all the smaller.

"She even confessed (...) that she put herself into Miss Piggy, too. (…) She's talking from the pedestal of the artist. She's very conscious of that."

Elfriede Jelineks On the Royal Road: The Burgher King im CUNY, NY (Shant Shahrigian)

Director Stefan Džeparoski, translator Gitta Honegger and actor Masha Dakić in a post-performance Q&A

On Trump's home turf

Deciding to debut the work in Trump's home city seemed like a statement in itself. Jelinek, who a play organizer said was watching "The Royal Road" via livestream on Monday, clearly takes every aspect of her performances into account. She famously canceled stagings of her works in Austria after the far-right Freedom Party gained seats in parliament in 2000.

"One of the duties that I feel of the artist is sometimes to poke the finger where it hurts the most, to go deep into that wound and to press it until everything bleeds out," Džeparoski said in an interview. "Some good blood will bleed out, some ugly stuff will also get out, but then the body will be cleansed, somehow - catharsis. That's what we need."

Honegger said details of the fall performance in Hamburg will be announced at a press conference next month.

 

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