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By Tristan Lejeune

It isn’t easy or fun performing live theatre for an audience so sparse that the cast outnumbers the spectators — this critic can say from experience.

So before we even begin, a round of applause for the Scena Theatre company, which performed its version of Fear Eats the Soul admirably in front of a nearly empty house on Friday night. But then, perhaps a mostly vacant lab space tucked away, like a wallet hidden from pickpockets, in the Atlas Performing Arts Center is exactly where an adaptation of a 1970s West German cult film belongs.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Cannes Award-winning movie (as well as the play translated and adapted by Anthony Vivis) is a melodrama — but one told on an inherently small scale. It’s about lonesome, working-class people, and its story unfolds through cups of coffee, through trips to the grocer, through ugly, ugly shoes.

Emmi (Nanna Ingvarsson, heartbreaking and true) meets Ali (Oscar Ceville, mercurial and compelling) after ducking into an unfamiliar cafe on a rainy evening. He’s middle-aged, she’s somewhat older, and they’re both so lonely that the need for connection practically radiates off them. Ali, a native of Morocco, and Emmi, a widow with three adult children, spend the night together, and then many more.

It’s Germany, so they’re too practical to have much ambition. But their affair and eventual marriage scandalizes every Caucasian they know, revealing 1974 Berlin to be just as racist as 1954 Alabama or 1984 Johannesburg. And yet the relationship’s real trials only begin once neighbors and coworkers start coming around on the union, and Emmi and Ali have to deal with the strange, needy person who is now their spouse. Fear something-something the soul, after all.

The ensemble of families and bar-goers does good work, but it’s really all about the lead two. Their substantial chemistry carries the stories through its twists.

The costumes are appropriately tacky, especially Emmi’s hideous polyester house dress. The lights are great, too, sometimes blaring, sometimes sneaking up on you.

The soundtrack is better than anyone deserves, blending contemporaneous Arabic, German and English-language tunes, and the use of rear projections to help with settings was a good call. There are, it must be said, a few too many scenes all told — too much time spent on moving chairs around.

And at times the dialogue feels overly faithful to its source material; the actors often sound like they’re reading subtitles, with words and phrases unnaturally repeated or, particularly from the chorus, used as signifiers. And the accents! Can someone please explain why some characters speak with continental accents, others with British, and some with none at all? Don’t get it.

Don’t let the smaller complaints fool you, however — this one-act show is crammed full of good stuff.

I hope soon more people go see it.

Fear Eats the Soul runs through June 4 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.

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