Sometimes you have to go far away to get a glimpse of home. This could be Berlin (Germany) or the afterlife, both of which are the setting of “Sales of a Deadman,” a co-production of Opera Lab Berlin and English Theatre Berlin (ETB).
A twist on the title of American playwright Arthur Miller’s 1949 play “Death of a Salesman,” this experimental operatic production viscerally explores what happens to a salesperson after she dies—and it is neither pretty nor quiet. But owing to gamely talented soprano Gina May Walter, it is both affectively intriguing and critically devastating.
Intricately composed by Evan Gardner with not only musical notes and intermittent voice, but crashing cymbals, rasping breaths, slurps, heartbeats—and especially a plethora of noises from everyday wares our salesperson sells from her suitcase, including a bell, chain, maraca, rolling pin, kazoo and cooking pot (all pink)—"Sales of a Deadman” is a disquieting study in sound.
Our heroine doesn’t seem to know she has died. Willy Loman’s unseen car crash near the end of “Death of a Salesman” is evoked in the darkened beginning of “Sales of a Deadman” by a jarringly loud scream, video projection of fire (video designed by Christian Maith and Samuel Chalela Puccini), and the clang of a cymbal thrown onto the angular stage. We hear voiceovers of doctors describing the demise of a patient.
And we see (and hear) a woman in white shirt and gray skirt getting up from the ground (stage and costume design by Hannah Beeck), finding a clip for her long hair and slowly re-assembling herself with other items strewn across the stage—a matching gray jacket, black pumps and purse, and, notably, a wheeled silver sales case. She makes loud sounds as she dresses, including her own rasping breath and heartbeats formed by her own hands.
As directed by ETB Artistic Director Daniel Brunet, Walter thoroughly embodies her disembodied character, moving slowly yet purposefully in bringing to life Gardner’s score. She wheels her case behind a sheer curtain to where three musicians sit at a table like the Fates, their faces painted white (makeup by Oliver Kunde), placing a ticking metronome in front of each that she has fished from her case. She is the noisy provider of all things not really needed.
The musicians, directed by Inés González, complement the woman’s sounds and voice with saxophone (González), wind instruments (Marita Gehrer) and cello (Guilherme Rodrigues). Gardner’s score has the musicians starting and stopping on a dime, intermixed with the other sounds Walter makes with objects (including cooking peas in a pot at the table and slurping them up), plus moments of her crystal-clear soprano voice ringing out.
The effect is controlled cacophony. The woman enacts selling her objects to the audience (with house lights up), reciting marketing acronyms such as ABC (“always be closing”) and the type of shrill “act now!” and “get one free!” imperatives common in American commercialism.
After the performance, composer Gardner said that late comedian George Carlin’s sketch on advertising inspired part of the woman’s extended selling schtick. Her rapid delivery is backgrounded by an amusing video reel of her face variously expressing assurance, complicity and the like as she entangles her face with twine.
At one point, the woman hustles the American flag. She also flips on the audience, first thanking individuals as potential consumers before saying “fuck you” to each. The moment is pivotal in turning satire into something more menacing, even suggesting her own self-loathing for what she does.
As she continues manipulating her noisy objects (such as scratching a pink snare drum with her fingernails), the woman seems to suffer occasional moments of realization about the soulless nature of her work. These, however, are fleeting and she ends her “life” by shooting herself with a barcode scanner.
The woman thus casts herself as another object to sell. As English Theatre Berlin describes, “death has now also become […] a marketplace where the human being has been transformed into a commodity with their stories, relationships and memories all just waiting to be bought and sold.” Though more abstractly delivered, that is certainly the affective impression of this aurally unusual and provocatively staged production.
“Sales of a Deadman” was performed twice, on June 29 and July 1, a reprise of sold-out performances in February. It was originally performed in 2014 and given more dynamic staging since then by director Brunet. Gardner noted afterward that Brunet also shifted some of the woman’s selling objects to a drawer behind the table of the musicians to allow the case to be smaller than in the original production.
Such collaboration between a composer and director both originally American makes the critical commentary of “Sales of a Deadman” that much more acerbic. If only we could escape the disjointed noise of American consumerism and the waste of both material and lives it engenders. At least we can see (and hear) it for what it is.