Were you asked to short-list cultures that don't understand each other these days, "German" and "American" mightn't make the cut. Yet the misunderstandings are there, as Melanie Dreyer learned after a job directing a 1997 U.S. production of Cabaret (a musical about Germans, adapted by Americans from a play by a Brit) led her to learn the German language and, eventually, to visit Germany.
There, Dreyer learned, even the German stage elite were quite ignorant about American theater: They thought it was all Broadway. Back home, even nominally cosmopolitan New York City-based artists admitted to her that they still reflexively thought of Germans as Nazis.
Dreyer vowed to narrow the gap. A decade later, her pledge bears fruit when Outside Inn hits the Charity Randall Theatre on Sept. 12-15. It's a world-premiere work by German playwright Andreas Jungwirth, and possibly a unique production: With help from translator Gabriele Schafer, Outside Inn will be performed three times in English and twice in German, all by the same cast of four under Dreyer's direction.
Finding the cast -- two Americans, two Germans; three men, one woman; all four bilingual -- was hard, but it didn't take nearly as long as getting the necessary institutional support. After securing a partner in Stephan Bruckmeier, a writer, actor and director who co-founded Theater Rampe Stuttgart, Dreyer turned to the University of Pittsburgh, where she's an assistant professor in the Department of Theater Arts. Pitt's Repertory Theatre will give audiences this chance to see the cast -- including Schafer and Bruckmeier -- walk their linguistic high-wire.
Dreyer calls Outside Inn an "adventure story," but one that Jungwirth, at her behest, wrote around themes of cultural clash. One thread of the narrative follows a German national who while working in the U.S. accidentally causes the death of his boss, then steals an ID and flees to Mexico.
Jungwirth is "a political-thinking author, and he writes in a style which is translatable," says Bruckmeier. "He searches in the deep, not on the top of the story."
Bruckmeier, a Vienna native, likes Pittsburgh -- "It's a little like Stuttgart" -- and agrees with Dreyer about the German-American schism. Germans, for instance, mock Americans for not knowing their European countries -- but are themselves ignorant about our own quite populous 50 states. After it wraps here, Outside Inn is set for a bilingual stint in Stuttgart. Bruckmeier says it will help audiences "think about what they really know, what they need to know, and what they have to discuss."
While Bruckmeier, 45, also agrees that the media play a role in creating and perpetuating national stereotypes, he acknowledges that some differences might be built in. A language, for instance, is wrapped not only in its characteristic sounds and rhythms, but also in a particular culture. Bruckmeier himself learned as much in rehearsal for the play, switching between English and German.
"Your whole behavior changes," says Bruckmeier. "I have the feeling I create two different characters. In the end, [though,] it has to be one character in both languages."
Outside Inn Wed., Sept. 12-Sat., Sept. 15 (three performances in English, two in German). Charity Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow, Oakland. $22 ($15 seniors/$12 students). 412-624-PLAY