Werther and Lotte at the Lab Theater

Never meant to be: Nathan Keepers and Christina Baldwin
Dave Rector

A piece that incorporates Goethe, Thomas Mann, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract sounds like an assignment from my high school humanities teacher, but those elements also combine to make for another strong piece from the Moving Company.

Crafted by performers Nathan Keepers and Christina Baldwin and director Dominique Serrand, Werther and Lotte delves into the tortured relationship of the titular figures, which has inspired creators of many stripes over the past two centuries. The basics of the story are fairly simple. Goethe fell in love with Charlotte, a young woman who was already betrothed to another man. The emotional suffering came out in one of the author's most famous works, The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the main character is eventually driven to suicide by his feelings.

In the 1930s, Thomas Mann revisited the characters for Lotte in Weimar, in which he examined the impact Goethe's book had on the real Charlotte via fictional conversations that took place decades after the original events. Taken together, the original pieces offer a rich vein of material to mine. That, in turn, gives both creators a chance to showcase their distinct talents, from Baldwin's exceptional voice to Keepers's expressive body, but it's their onstage chemistry that fuels the evening.

It starts simply enough, with Werther first meeting Charlotte and becoming captivated by this bright woman who is promised to another and who spends much of her time dealing with the flock of brothers and sisters she has to take care of in the absence of her late mother. The two hit it off, in part because the bookish Werther is interested in what Charlotte thinks (which is where Rousseau comes into play). He also seems to enjoy the idea that she is truly inaccessible. She is devoted to the missing fiancé and quickly makes him her husband once he returns, fittingly portrayed as an empty suit jacket.

Charlotte often gets short shrift in retellings of the story—see Jules Massenet's opera Werther for a prime example—but here Baldwin keeps her character completely grounded, wishing that her friend would understand that she was never available in the first place. In contrast, Keepers fully embodies Werther's descent, becoming increasingly disheveled and erratic before making his final appointment with a dueling pistol.

Musically, the piece cuts an interesting swath, featuring bluesy, jazzy numbers that underscore the impossible nature of Werther and Charlotte's love. That makes sense, because the young poet's plight is a lot like a traditional blues song: He's been wronged by love and left dazed and confused. That sharpens considerably during a performance of Tom Waits's "The Briar and the Rose." Keepers swings above the stage while an increasingly despondent Baldwin sings each verse about a traditionally doomed love, until she can barely stand, spent by the effort to keep her friend moving and alive.

Werther isn't the most likeable guy—his ennui can be unbearable—but Keepers plays the part with enough of a light touch to make his flaws a bit easier to handle. This is a somewhat stumbling, awkward young man, seemingly in his first bout of love. It's not surprising that he descends so deeply, right down to donning a leather jacket in the scene after Lotte's marriage. For her part, Baldwin's costumes become more practical as time goes on, from a youthful dress to a more somber black ensemble before finally settling into a pair of jeans and a blouse. Charlotte has grown up in a way that Werther, in his permanent, frozen youth, could never dream of doing.

The staging in the cavernous Lab can't help but be spare, especially with only the two actors and two musicians onstage. Director and designer Serrand uses the vast warehouse, with its rough brick walls, to great effect, making a world that can be as warm as a walk in a garden or as stark as a frozen landscape. (That the space has a similar vibe to Serrand's old Theatre de la Jeune Lune stomping grounds certainly doesn't hurt.) These accents help to carry the piece through the halting first segment as the audience settles into the particular isolated world the characters inhabit—one where the other characters are represented by empty spaces.

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