Long before Beatlemania, the cult of "Twilight" or any other familiar celebrity obsession, there was the phenomenon of "Wertherism." Goethe's semi-autobiographical novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther" created such a sensation when it was published in 1774 that young men copied the protagonist's clothes, and young women yearned to inspire such undying passion. The MovingCompany's distilled re-imagining, "Werther and Lotte, the Passion and the Sorrow", shakes the cobwebs off this classic and demonstrates once again the emotional heft at its core.
"Werther and Lotte" is the result of an inspired collaboration by three artists. Dominique Serrand and Nathan Keepers developed the text from Goethe's work as well as Thomas Mann's "Lotte in Weimar" and Rousseau's "The Social Contract." Christina Baldwin contributed music and music direction. Keepers and Baldwin play the title roles in the two-hander, under Serrand's direction, creating a moody, theatrical and palpably visual journey through an ill-fated relationship.
Young Werther is smitten by Lotte almost at first glance. Although he's well aware that she's promised to another, a friendship develops quickly between the two. When Lotte marries her fiancé, Albert, Werther is plunged into a black despair. Ultimately he takes his own life.
Keepers and Baldwin beautifully conjure the trajectory of this relationship over the course of the performance. Keepers imbues the role of Werther with a palpable vulnerability that would be almost painful to watch were it not tempered by self-deprecating humor. He becomes a gawky puppy at his first meeting with her, vainly muttering the warning he's received -- "Don't fall in love, don't fall in love" -- as he does just that. His passion for her has him literally climbing the furniture. Baldwin, on the other hand, maintains a serene, unself-conscious grace that ably demonstrates her iconic position as a veritable force of nature in Werther's psyche.
The production easily could sink beneath the weight of its own angst, were it not for the complex texture that has been brought to this descent into obsession. Projections, arresting stage images, and Sonya Berlovitz's costume design create an evocative visual vocabulary that often speaks louder than the text. Sly touches of humor enliven, as in one instance where Lotte's fiancé is personified by a coat draped across a chair. Keepers' scene with the coat becomes a hilarious commentary both on Albert's stolid worthiness and on Werther's dismissal of the bond with Lotte that he represents. Baldwin's achingly lovely singing voice and the live music provided by Edde Hou's violin and mandolin and Matt Blake's bass add depth and poignancy.
Overall this is an inspired creation by some extravagantly talented artists that cuts away the excesses of Goethe's original work to reveal its heart.