Comparisons between entertainment mediums may seem unfair, but in the case of “Katzelmacher,” a tale chronicling the day-to-day tedium of a group of aimless and violent xenophobes, they are not unfounded. Indeed, the subject matter served legendary director Rainer Werner Fassbinder twice, for a 1968 stage production (presently receiving a rare American revival at The Side Project in Rogers Park) and more notably for a 1969 film treatment that has since become a minimalist classic of the New German Cinema. Using stark and simple cinematography, a series of drawn-out and static black-and-white shots produce an emotionally suffocating and desperately bleak eighty-nine-minute viewing experience. It’s therefore disappointing that although equipped with the same raw material—the elliptical dialogue is virtually the same in both versions—and despite a claustrophobic intimacy achieved by seating the audience directly in and around the action, director Jesse Weaver’s rushed and unsubtle forty-five-minute revival is a manipulative journey into dark psychological terrain, but one that is ultimately an unthreatening affair. The problem here is mainly one of tone. Fassbinder’s characters and their amorality are disturbing only if their actions are seen as nothing more than the result of an emotional indifference and disturbing casualness to the suffering of others. It’s the same kind of inexplicable brutality that runs through the unrepentant, baby-stoning chaps in playwright Edward Bond’s 1965 “Saved,” or the HIV-positive adolescent rapists in filmmaker Larry Clark’s disturbing 1995 film, “Kids.” The kids in this play, however, have been misdirected to play their bloodlust from the get-go, pushing way too hard in an attempt to provoke and yet lacking that understated quality of monstrous innocence that characterizes schoolyard bullies or good-looking serial killers. There are positives. The environmental design is inarguably the best use yet of the tiny Side Studio space, and the motley-looking cast, smartly costumed, is certainly something to behold up-close: Faela Stafford’s piercing blue eyes; Kurt Chiang’s gangly physique; Jodi Morton’s distressingly-jaundiced look and Sadie Rogers’ little-girl-lost dangerous sexiness. A misused, great-looking cast in a misunderstood great play. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
The Side Project Theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis Avenue, (773)973-2150. Sun-Wed 7:30pm. $10-$15. Through April 1. This production is now closed.