In Berzerkergäng, there are mortals, immortals and Berzerkers.
They're not the death-metal band from Australia, but they are somewhat akin to Saruman's lethal army in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Kirsten Brandt greets me at the back door of Sledgehammer Theatre, where she has been artistic director since 1999. She motions toward the backstage inner sanctum, which used to be a chapel of sorts. Among the sights are a steeply raked stage backed by six doors. The lumber is fresh, still in need of the scenic artist's paintbrush. The sound system plays an amusing transcription of Richard Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries,” scored for accordion and pizzicato strings.
'Our sound designer just flew in for the day,” Brandt explains. We are joined by directors Michael Severance and Jessa Watson, and the entire group repairs to Twiggs Coffee Shop in Cortez Hill.
There, Brandt explains that she based Berzerkergäng on the same Norse legends that German composer and dramatist Wagner used for his monumental, four-hour Ring Cycle.
Berzerkergäng begins with the theft of the Ring of the Nibelungen and ends with the Twilight of the Gods, but in between there, says the trio, there are huge liberties, all of which are inspired by older, 13th century myths.
'Whenever we got into trouble,' says Brandt, 'we went back to Wagner. He's a genius.'
'We tell the story,' says Severance, 'and it is filled with gorgeous archetypes and passion.'
Brandt gave the co-directors 'a clean, linear but fun text to start building on' and then charged them with finding visual imagery that elicits visceral response.
'Kirsten's writing it, but Michael and I are shaping,' Watson explains. 'With our constant collaboration, it's becoming a beautiful project.'
In the past, Brandt has directed her own work, something she admits causes her to war with herself over compromises between text and staging.
'I tend to obsess as well,' she admits, 'so when I direct, I usually read a big, fat novel.' Currently she's providing Berzerkergäng rewrites and text bridges for the co-directors. To avoid obsessing, she is directing another project, Private Parties, a new, two-woman script by Allan Havis running at 6th@Penn.
Brandt thought about writing Berzerkergäng for years. A big time opera fanatic, she was named for the great Wagnerian soprano, Kirsten Flagstad.
Briefly, here's the story of Berzerkergäng: Wotan (Ruff Yeager) heads a large corporation and has groomed his daughter, Brunhilde (Laura Lee Juliano), to be CEO. Brunhilde runs afoul of daddy's wife, Erda (Janet Hayatshahi), however. When a guy named Alberich (David Tierney) steals a source of unlimited power (the Ring of the Nibelungen in the opera), corporate warfare breaks loose. A dragon (at least he says he is) named Fafner and corporate giants wage war with the gods, abetted by four Berzerkers.
'You have immortal characters mixing with the mortals,' says Watson. 'It's very clear who is who. But there are no horns and no braids.'
'We set up the convention of the corporation early in the play,' says Brandt. 'Alberich [a dwarf in the opera] is a cubicle worker. Wotan's like the chairman of the board. Here's the world-now let's get to the story and the relationships, as opposed to saying something scathing about corporate America, which is still there.
'It becomes about the archetypal people. What do they sacrifice for each other? What kind of revenge are they willing to exact? It's quite violent, really.'
That seems to be where the unscripted and assuredly recognizable Berzerkers come in. Brandt sees them as some kind of modern-day corporate raiders. Historically and mythologically, she says, they were the front men in battle.
'The Vikings would say, ‘Let's send in the Berzerkers.' They were a bunch dressed in bear or wolf skins who basically would kill anything in their path. Take a hit, lose an arm, and they just kept fighting. They were attributed magical powers, but if you think about it they were probably just seriously on PCP or something.'
Brandt didn't script the Berzerkers. Instead, she gave the concept to Severance and Watson to use as they will.
'Think Grendel in Beowulf,' says Severance. 'He was the Berzerker. We made a conscious choice, an interesting choice, and it is frightening.'
'They're so not what I intended,' says Brandt.
When Severance first presented his and Watson's Berzerker ideas to Brandt, she said, 'What? You're crazy!' Then she paused and said, 'Oh. That's good.'
On the first day of rehearsals Watson and Severance showed Bugs Bunny's 'What's Opera, Doc' ('I killed the wabbit. I killed the wabbit' set to the 'Ride of the Valkyries') to the actors. Brandt played Anna Russell's hilarious 20-minute send-up of Ring Cycle.
'We're all insane, you know,' she says.
But what if the audience knows nothing of the Nibelungs, the Volsungs or Wagner?
'Berzerkergäng is inspired by Wagner, but we're not doing the Ring Cycle. You don't need to know the story to enjoy the piece. It's a big show. Just sit back and let it hit you.'