An organized madness has taken over the Brick Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where a man playing a deer wears stilettos on his hands and photocopied images Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer are mounted on corrugated cardboard, adorned with pasta, and spray painted gold. It’s all part of BAMBIF*CKER/KAFFEEHAUS (as it is politely stylized), a feverish exploration of creativity, violence, sexuality, and Jewish identity based on early 20th century Jewish Viennese writer Felix Salten and his two best-known works: Bambi, a Life in the Woods, which was adapted into the Disney animated film, and the pornographic fake autobiography Josephine Mutzenbacher—The Life Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself.
You read that right. Little Lord, the theater company behind the project, describes it as “madcap examination of early 20th century Vienna and of the forgotten artist behind both the world’s most beloved deer, as well as its most scandalous piece of pornography.”
Written collaboratively mostly by Michael Levinton and Laura von Holt (and directed by Levinton), to call the work ambitious is an understatement. It’s fearless in its weirdness, and its wonderful cast can make even the comically erotic retelling of a children’s story feel utterly sincere.
The creative team at Little Lord found the coincidence of the two works too enticing to resist unpacking—especially when they learned that Salten’s career also involved writing for the publication of his mentor, Theodor Herzl. As David Rakoff pointed out in these pages in 2006, Salten’s version of Bambi is a far cry from the saccharine Disney version we’re familiar with: “Salten’s writing has not a trace of anthropomorphized cuteness,” Rakoff wrote. “Bambi’s forest is peopled (creatured?) with characters by turns arrogant, venal, gossipy, and engaging—as flawed and varied as the cosmopolitan fauna Salten must have encountered daily in his life in Vienna.”
This show is theatrical cholent at its meatiest—all these elements and more are thrown together and left to simmer over the course of the evening. Anthropomorphized animals discuss email (and deer ticks) at a pre-World War II cafe. Bambi discusses his mother’s death in therapy. Herzl even makes a cameo appearance as Bambi’s father, in the form of a literal stag head held aloft in front of a desk lamp.
It helps to see the show through the lens of a sugar high, and this is easy to achieve: before the show, the space functions as a “coffee house,” where audience members can redeem “Bambi Bucks” for snacks (including Pop Tarts as toaster strudel—how Viennese!). Glucose levels aside, you can enjoy BAMBI for antic value alone, or for long afterwards try to unpack the dense piece, where the cultural references and gags build into story of intense highs and lows, of joy and fear. It’s queer, it’s Jewish, it’s transgressive, but it’s definitely a good time.
BAMBIF*CKER/KAFFEEHAUS runs through March 21st.