‘13 Moons’: Bill Camp & Robert Woodruff test the limits of theater

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13moonsA spectacular, one-of-a-kind blend of theater, film and live television is on view at Yale Rep through next Saturday.

“In a Year with 13 Moons” is clearly not for everyone — there were a distressing number of empty seats when I saw it last week — but director Robert Woodruff and actor Bill Camp have created something truly special that I think you would be crazy to miss.

The play is based on one of the best films by the maverick German writer-director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a harrowing and moving story of a 1978 Frankfurt man who undergoes a sex change operation in a rash moment and then finds that he cannot go on living.

Elvira (Camp) wanders through a bleak, largely unfriendly city trying to reconnect with people — a male prostitute; one of his ex-loves; his former wife and their daughter; a journalist who once interviewed him — but is frozen out everywhere.

13moons1The title comes from a folk legend that says that any year with 13 new moons will be rife with bad luck and unhappiness — all too true of Elvira in 1978.

Fassbinder made the film in response to the suicide death of his lover Arwin Meier. The director said that rather than give up on life (and his career) he channeled everything into a film drama/essay on the suicidal impulse.

Woodruff and Camp did the adaptation together — just as they did for another sensational Yale Rep production, “Notes from Underground,” a few years ago.

Woodruff loves to play with the form of theater, adding as much technology as he believes a story can bear.

In “13 Moons,” a few scenes are played in offstage rooms but we see what is going on there via video projections. Camp’s stage performance is often augmented by projected “close-ups” that come to us via small cameras carried by fellow cast members.

Scenic and costume designer David Zinn uses the full width of Yale Rep’s unusually wide stage, carving the space up into smaller playing areas that are constantly transformed by the lighting, the video projections and a large glass room that can be moved around the stage.

Meanwhile, monitors and other projections present 1978 news broadcasts and clips from old films (including Sam Fuller’s camp classic “The Naked Kiss”) as part of the design.

You might think that so much technology would mean a cold and emotionless experience, but Camp anchors the whole show with an unforgettable display of desperation, hopelessness, and flashes of dark humor that keep him moving from place to place in search of his lost dreams.

It’s an awesome display of stage acting — combined with the more intimate possibilities of TV and film — that will not be forgotten by anyone who is lucky enough to see it.

(For information on the final week of performances, visit www.yalerep.org)

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Joe Meyers

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