American Theatre

September 2004


Viennese Waltz

Gustav Klimt gave her her first kiss, and another Gustav--Mahler--was the first of her three husbands. From Vienna to Los Angeles, Alma Mahler-Werfel (nee Schindler) had a knack for being at the right place at the right time, and on the right man's arm--from Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus and her second husband, to expressionist painter Oscar Kokoschka, with whom she had a torrid affair.


A present-day Alma would certainly be on the guest list for a splashy gala opening in Los Angeles this fall. That's where Viennese director/producer Paulus Manker will mount a "polydrama" designed to recount the many chapters of Alma's transatlantic journey in Alma: Widow of the 4 Arts, which plays at the Los Angeles Theatre Sept. 30-Dec. 5.


"I think it's mad to do something like this," said Manker, a  balding imp with a wild glint in his eye. "It's like Hannibal and the elephants." Elaborate props and decor—rugs, paintings, chandeliers—have been imported from Vienna, where Alma was first staged in an historic sanitorium in 1996. Six performers from Vienna will reprise their roles, with the remaining nine actors from L.A.


The mad part isn't so much the show's size as its form. As in its previous incarnations: Alma will feature various scenes in separate rooms, running simultaneously, with audiences free to roam, sit up close to the action, even come back repeatedly to see scenes they've missed. The premise is not unlike L.A.'s site-specific mid-1980s hit Tamara, from which Manker took inspiration. "Normally, with film and TV, they feed you like animals," Manker said. "Everything is clear. Here you have to go look for the story."


The show is proving to be peripatetic itself, following Alma's own itinerary: Los Angeles was her first U.S. stop, where, with her third husband, author Franz Werfel, she was at the center of a lively expatriate community.


Manker admits that the interest of his Austrian funders has been piqued by California's current governor. Will Arnold himself turn up for a tour of Alma?


"We hope so," Manker said. "And we hope this is a demonstration as well—to show certain political circles that they should invest more in culture."

--Rob Kendt


"Alma: Widow of the 4 Arts" plays at the Los Angeles Theatre in Downtown L.A., Sept. 30-Dec. 5. (323) 252-7112.