Ryan Landry's "M" is Among Us

Fritz Lang and Ryan Landry are men of unique vision. But whereas the stark, single-minded intensity of Lang’s oeuvre defined the German Expressionist movement, Landry’s creativity rejects monomaniacal auteurship in favor of an aesthetic that scavenges, remixes, and re-imagines with a fierce audacity. The results, though, are every bit as singular.

Accommodating the visions of both men in a single project is a daunting task. Lang called M his greatest work, and critics have echoed his judgment throughout the eight decades since the film’s release. The tale of a city panicked by an elusive child-killer is certainly macabre enough to grip the imagination of any age, as evidenced by the numerous films, books, and other adaptations that have taken up the theme. Each, however, has fallen inevitably under the shadow of Lang’s masterpiece.

For Landry, a simple reiteration of the story’s events would be a doubly hopeless endeavor. Those who ape Lang inevitably find themselves losing by comparison. More importantly, though, repeating the grim cycle of the tale — murder, pursuit, judgment — leaves audience and actors alike trapped in the gloom of an eternal 1931 with no means of escape.

To provide a means of escape, Landry introduces a plucky ingénue (“Woman”) and a bold theatergoer (“Man”) whose madcap love affair provides a counterpoint to the haunted main plot. Drawing on vintage romantic comedies and the cabaret glitz of Weimar Berlin, the couple initiates a parallel manhunt, chased by those who would restore the proceedings to “the story as rehearsed.”

Landry’s theatre company, The Gold Dust Orphans, are known for embracing the turbulence of mainstream culture while simultaneously undermining it through classic techniques of theatrical subversion — drag, parody, and satire. In doing so, their work draws on the aesthetic developed by Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company in the 1970s and ’80s, whose manifesto urged theatrical adaptors to, “treat the material in a madly farcical manner without losing the seriousness of the theme.” If anyone can find a way to express the terror of M while simultaneously offering release from its grip, it is Landry, whose work The Phoenix has praised for its “uncanny if slightly unhinged faithfulness.”

The Orphans’ adaptations can certainly inspire purist outrage alongside adulation. But such transgression is key to the history of M, which was seen as dangerously corrupting even while it was lauded. The Nazis denounced it as degenerate, and critics were both fascinated and appalled. “Things get really evil only when raw and uncivilized sentiments are mixed with the most refined and highly civilized ability!” Gabriele Tergit proclaimed in a 1931 review, in a judgment that encapsulates exactly the qualities that Landry seeks to emulate.

The original M’s mix of sophistication and corruption represents the basis of noir, perhaps the only fictional genre that owes its existence entirely to the cinema. In turn, the Orphans’ trademark fusion of genres demands recognition of our complicity — as an audience and as individuals — in both the perversity of pop culture and the inability to free ourselves of traditional strictures in performance, attitude, and adaptation. Applied to M, this approach deepens our understanding of what it means to hunt for the source of our fears, in the theatre as well as in the wider world. The tale of a society’s search for the demon hidden in its heart will remain current as long as we suspect — prompted by Lang, Landry, and the rest — that the killer is indeed among us.

— Sam Lasman

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