What better place to set a love triangle driven by obsession and lust than in the high-pressure world of high fashion? Red Line Productions’ The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant oozes melodrama and sexual tension in this play-turned-movie-turned-play-again about a neurotic fashion designer, her adoring assistant, and a vain, young model.
German writer and filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder was partly inspired by American melodramas of the 1950s and partly by his own love life when he cooked up this play – layering on the turbulence and titillation. After a chance introduction brimming with sexual tension, successful fashion designer Petra (Sara Wiseman) falls quickly and madly in love with aspiring model Karin (Taylor Ferguson), but the connection quickly turns sour.
We fast forward to six months later, and the once-hesitant Karin is icy, stretched out on a sofa as Petra begs for her attention. They spiral fast into a mess of manipulation and desperation.
Director Shane Bosher has tapped into the script’s inherent flash and polish and designed an intimate – but still impactful – spectacle. Georgia Hopkins’ chic set and Alex Berlage’s fashion-show lighting bring the play into the pages of a 2016 fashion magazine.
The show thrives on high-stakes melodrama and though it breaks fleetingly to land on more tender moments of blossoming chemistry between Petra and Karin, the shape of the show is still clear: we’re there to watch the tightly wound, in-control Petra unravel before our eyes. Her emotional release is so heart-breaking you want to distance yourself from its shattering reverberations, but Bosher doesn’t give us anywhere else to go. We’re stuck in it with her.
Wiseman’s Petra is alluring as she is confronting in her obsessive attempts to control her career, and those around her, most notably Karin – though she also dominates her assistant Marlene (an ever hanting Matilda Ridgway, who suffers in a silence that’s equally as devastating as Petra’s violent sobbing). Wiseman’s captivating journey from a collected and unassailable presence who commands the attention of the room to a broken and desperate lover is compelling from the outset – and well-matched by Ferguson’s mercurial Karin. But the core of the play rests in Wiseman’s hands, and it becomes all the more heart wrenching to witness as Petra sinks to her lowest ebb.
This isn’t a subtle play but that doesn’t matter. If you’re looking for a catharsis, you can’t get one better on stage right now than watching Petra fall into the cruel grasp of love.