Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Deer House

The Deer House
Needcompany, Belgium
William Shakespeare Theater
3 April 2010

On 1 April at the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Cultural Center author and director Jan Lauwers gave a thoughtful and thorough conference about his work with Needcompany and the play The Deer House.

The Deer House is the third part of a trilogy about loss. The first installment, Isabelle's Room, set in the past, was performed at the Iberoamerican Theater Festival two years ago. The Lobster Shop, set in the future, is not widely performed because it does not follow a linear story line and it can be overly-challenging for audiences. The Deer House, set in the present, is what Needcompany brought to this year's festival in Bogota.

The play grew out of the experience of one of the dancers with the theater company whose brother, a photojournalist, was killed in Kosovo. That was the starting point but, as Lauwers observes, the personal story has to become universal to make it interesting, to make it relevant. He stresses that art must transcend political and cultural barriers to be able to speak to people in different countries.

Lauwers is the author, but he is always aware of the performers for whom he is writing as he develops the script. Some of the scripting is written, some of it is presented to the performers as guidelines and they are given the task of communicating in their own way. The cast includes individuals trained as actors, singer, and dancers, so each one has their own way of communicating with the audience and in interactions with each other. Giving the actors control over their performances also keeps it fresh. In Lauwers' words, every performance should look like it is being improvised. Lauwers is also a plastic artist who works in painting and sculpture. The Deer House is a very sculptural piece. Lauwers and Needcompany often work in art installations. The Deer House reflects this style of working and conveys a strong sense that the characters are the medium and the message, and that any living medium is temporal. I saw the play with my friend Sally who observed that "Although it was rather visually challenging and hectic with a lot (too much) going on at the same time, it did convey the idea that while something dramatic is going on for one person (the one whose brother was killed) and raises concern among the rest of the group, their everyday lives are running on as usual in the background. People threw in their comments on the situation (or any situation) and sparred off each other to provoke some amusing observations…"

In the performance the actors relate to each other on different levels, as actors, characters, and individuals. The play itself is divided into two sections: the first part takes place in the dressing room. The actors receive the news about the brother's death as they are getting into costume and warming up. In the second part they are in costume and enact the story of the brother and the family of the woman who he unwillingly condemned to die.

Coming out of this conference, and being impressed with the thought process and rehearsal that goes into the performance, I had high hopes for the production which I saw two days later on 3 April. I was not altogether satisfied with the end product. True to his word, the energy and the intensity were there, but the whole thing didn't quite gel.

Grace, in the character of the mentally challenged girl gives a convincing if grating performance. Lauwers writes a part for everyone, whether it makes any sense in the storyline or not. Yumiko and Misha did not really fit into the story. Their presence, and the plot distraction in which Yumiko is discovered skulking around the dressing room and is suspected of having stolen a cellphone, seemed out of place and forced. Viviane, as the family matriarch, lacked force and presence.

Thematically, this play deals with death. The deer die. The daughter Inge is dead. The photojournalist, forced to condemn Inge to death in a macabre choice, is killed by Inge's husband Julien. The daughter who was "saved" when Inge was killed, commits suicide. Julien is killed "accidentally." It is bleak and hopeless. According to the blurb, the end of the play is meant to convey a sense of hope and salvation, but when Grace "saves" the deer by leading them to shelter in the valley, it feels more like a fluke. There is no real reason for hope. Chaos reigns in the outside world, and chaos, eros and thanatos reign in The Deer House where this group of people has sought to live outside of the evil influences of the world. Perhaps they have been living in their bubble too long and it is time that they joined the real world again.

Why the Deer House? By way of explanation for the deer motif, Lauwers commented that the fact that deer still live in close proximity to the cities of the industrialized world gives him hope. It suggests to him that survival is still possible, despite the odds against them. A deer house itself refers to the tradition of harvesting deer horns, which is a brutal practice that sometimes kills the deer, and yet the animals survival to live another year and grow another set of horns. The characters in The Deer House, care for the deer, are the cause of their death, and they are the deer themselves.

This is a bold and experimental piece of work. I wouldn't say that I liked it. I have some reservations about the way that each character is incorporated into the story, and I question whether the author succeeds in conveying his message. But I am intrigued and interested enough that I would go see another performance by Jan Lauwers and Needcompany (I just don't want to see this one again).

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Carillon - 2666

Kitonb, Italy
Bogotá Bullfighting Ring
1 April 2010

It is nice that the theater festival offers different kinds of performance for different audiences. Carillon was billed as one of the “must see” shows for the whole family. Indeed I bought tickets for the whole family because it looked interesting.

The narrative pretext of the story of the creation of the world, something to do with Jupiter and bringing life to the universe, and there was something to do with the bronze age and the iron age… and a flood. If I’m a little shaky on the details, that is because the narration was so distorted that was practically inaudible. In contrast the sound for singer Rosie Wiederkehr was excellent; the music was beautiful but abstract. So let’s forget the story and just focus on the visual elements.

This is large-scale spectacle. The structure that is used for the stage was not placed in the center of the bullfighting ring, but rather at one end. My seat location, facing stage center across the ring, was a bit too far away, defeating the sense of grandeur. The cheap seats on the sides had a much better view. An extra large crane was brought in from the oilfields to maneuver the performers into position so that they appear high in the sky at different moments during the performance. These moments were beautiful, otherworldly, and sent shivers down my spine.

The best moments in the show were the appearance of the performers overhead, and the scene that had the dancers tumbling through bungee cords that are laced across the metal structure that is the main staging element, to the strains of the fast segment of Summer from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Overall conclusion: It was pretty cool but Carillon did not live up to the hype. I wish I'd paid less and had better seating. If it had been free street theater, I would have said it was fantastic. Having paid, I didn't feel that I got my money's worth.

Lliure Theater, Spain
Bellas Artes Theater
2 April 2010

Director Alex Rigola takes on the ambitious task of adapting Chilean author Roberto Bolaños' book by the same name for theater.

Following synopsis of the story is taken from Wikipedia: "The novel and the play are told in five parts, all linked by varying degrees with the unsolved murders of upwards of 300 young, poor, mostly uneducated Mexican women in Ciudad Juárez (Santa Teresa in the novel). The Part about the Critics describes a group of four European literary critics who have forged their careers around the elusive German novelist Benno von Archimboldi. Their search for Archimboldi ultimately leads them to the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa in Sonora. The Part about Amalfitano concentrates on Oscar Amalfitano, a professor of philosophy at the University of Santa Teresa, who fears his daughter will be caught up in the violence of the city. The Part about Fate follows Oscar Fate, an American journalist for a black interest magazine, who is sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match (despite knowing very little about boxing) but becomes interested in the murders. The Part about the Crimes chronicles the murders of hundreds of women in Santa Teresa from 1993 to 1997. It also depicts the police force in their apathetic attempts to solve the crimes. The Part about Archimboldi reveals that the mysterious writer is in fact Hans Reiter, born in 1920 in Prussia. This section explains how a provincial German soldier on the Eastern Front became an author in contention for the Nobel Prize."

Overall director Rigola does an excellent job. Bolaños' novel is close to 1,000 pages. As such, directing choices need to be made to produce a coherent piece of theater. Rigola uses a combination of narration, having characters "tell" the story, alongside enactment. The device works very well, and reminds the audience that this is, after all, a novel.

The contrasts are striking: The academics, their obsessions and romances. The gritty underworld of Santa Teresa, which is completely relevant to Bogota and the darker side of its nightlife in a developing country. The misogynistic police force's indifference to the deaths of the women. The scene of the murdered body that is discovered in the desert illustrates the indifference of the police, who stand around telling sexist jokes, as a long list of murder victims, their names and ages, scroll past on the wall of the crime scene tent that covers the back of the stage. The corpse (at first I thought it was a dummy, she was so still) begins to writhe and scream and beg for mercy, but the police cannot hear her. The visceral reality of the scene, and the sensation that it conveys of being just one more incident in an interminable series, is horrifying. The final scene reveals the identity of the mysterious Archimboldi, telling the story of his life. A lot of information presented in this scene, and the performers have to race through their lines at a breakneck speed. It does not quite hold together with the rest. The themes of death and violence remain important, a comparison is suggesting between the Santa Teresa murders and the barbarity of nazi atrocities. Still, the author's life story becomes an academic exercise and is anticlimactic after all that has come before. The play loses momentum and dramatic tension.

I suspect that the difficulty lies with the fact that this is an adaptation from a novel and director wanted to remain true to the author’s vision. Of course a novel gives you more time to develop the story and create the necessary links. With a running time of nearly five hours (with four intermissions), there just wasn't enough time to make the last scene hold together. Despite this shortcoming, I felt that this was a brilliant piece of theater.

All of the performances were excellent, with the cast members playing multiple roles. Unfortunately the night I saw the show one of the actresses was not well and was unable to finish the performance. She had to be replaced during the last scene. I applaud the group for continuing the performance; having the replacement actress reading the script onstage was not a problem. Each performance had very clear directing codes. Each scene had different assignments for the use of physical space, and most were very successful. One actor had the job of expressing himself through dance. He was a “mute chorus,” placed in the background and providing physical, non-verbal commentary throughout the scenes. I thought it was a magnificent directing choice and an excellent, intensely focused performance. It felt fresh. In many of the scenes, the performances switched between expository narration and interaction. The transitions were smooth and effective. It is literary device and it worked very well. I loved the staging. In every case the sets created and complemented the atmosphere that was sought.

This was an ambitious and daring project. Kudos to Lliure Theater for their effort.

The reviews for the two shows I saw at the theater festival: Break Out by the Seven Sense Theater Company of Korea, The Deer House by Needcompany of Belgium, and the festival's closing ceremony Jouers de Lumiere by Group F of France, as well as my recap of festival highlights, will have to wait until I get back from the coast. So, dear readers, we will have a week off before there is a new entry.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

La Orgía - Por qué, Por qué? (Why, Why?)

La Orgía
Barco Ebrio, Colombia
Teatro Leonardus
30 March 2010

La Orgía by Enrique Buenaventura uses black humor and pantomime slapstick as the vehicle for this piece of social commentary in which three down and out homeless people (the original text has four, but director/performer Beatriz Monsalve has eliminated one of the characters and updated the script) gather for the "orgy," a monthly event that an elderly prostitute pays them to attend and reenact the days of her former glory.

Each character represents one of "oligarchies" of Colombian society: the monied political class --still referred to as the elites in Colombia-- considered responsible for much of the violence in the country. The former Colonel, wearing a US motif t-shirt who goes on about the sacrifice of having allegedly lost his leg in battle, when it is obviously still attached to him and turns out to be perfectly functional. The "dwarf" who enacts the part of the Bishop, played by a full-sized actress in a costume that is as wide as it is tall; it is a gorgeously Botero image. The main character, the old woman who has whored herself to all of them. And her son, the mute, represents the silent masses in Colombia, whose voice is never heard, while the rest divvy up the country and fight amongst themselves.

The play uses pantomime conventions of role reversal and dressing up, slapstick, sexual innuendo, all carefully referenced within the Colombian context. The style is anti-naturalistic, theater of the grotesque. Everything is larger than life. From the heavy make-up and gaudy costumes, to the stylized performances, it is all in your face. It is not that I don't get it: I understand that this is "social commentary," but I found it worn and simplistic. The audience, however, loved it. On the upside, Iván Barlaham Montoya gave a beautiful performance as Tísico-Jacobo, the beggar-aristocrat.

La Orgía
Barco Ebrio, Colombia
Teatro Leonardus
30 de marzo 2010

La Orgía de Enrique Buenaventura utiliza el humor negro y la pantomima cómica como el vehículo para el comentario social en el cual tres mendigos (el texto original tiene cuatro, pero director y actriz Beatriz Monsalve eliminó uno de los personajes y actualizó el guión) se reúnen para La orgía, un evento mensual convocado por una prostituta anciana quien les paga para asistir y representar sus días de gloria del pasado.

Cada personaje representa una de las "oligarquías" de la sociedad colombiana: la clase política adinerada --que todavía se conoce como las elites en Colombia-- considerada responsable de gran parte de la violencia en el país. El ex coronel, con una camiseta estampada con una bandera norteamericana, quien lamenta el sacrificio de haber supuestamente perdido una pierna en la guerra, cuando es obvio que todavía conserva su pierna y resulta ser perfectamente funcional. La "enana", quien asume el papel del obispo, interpretada por una actriz de tamaño normal con un vestido que es igual de ancho como es de alto, es una imagen magníficamente Boteriano. El personaje principal, la anciana quien se ha prostituida con todos ellos. Su hijo, el mudo, quien representa a las masas silenciosas en Colombia, cuya voz nunca se escucha, mientras los otros reparten el país y pelean entre ellos.

La obra utiliza las convenciones de pantomima: el cambio de papeles, disfraces, comedia física, insinuaciones sexuales, todo con referencia al contexto colombiano. El estilo es anti-natural, el teatro de lo grotesco. Todo sale de los parámetros de lo natural. Desde el pesado maquillaje y el vestuario, a la actuación estilizada, todo está en sus narices. No es que no entiendo la propuesta: entiendo que es "crítica social", pero me pareció desgastado y simplista. El público, sin embargo, le encantó. Por el lado positivo, Iván Montoya Barlaham ofreció una actuación hermosa como Tísico-Jacobo, el mendigo aristócrata.

Warum, Warum? (Why, Why?)
Peter Brook, Zurich Schauspielhaus, Switzerland
Teatro Nacional Fanny Mikey
31 March 2010

When making my selections for the theater festival, I tend to veer away from anything that is going to involve reading a lot of subtitles; meaning anything that is strongly language-dependent that will not be performed in a language that I understand. I was hoping that Peter Brook's reflection on the art and practice of theater would be performed in English or French. It was in German. From there I have to ask the question: Would I have been better off reading the text rather than seeing it performed? The answer to that question is a resounding no. Miriam Goldschmidt gave a wonderfully expressive performance as she reflected on the craft of theater and why it ranks among the arts, as opposed to being merely entertainment. I enjoyed the production but, that being said, it was a piece of navel-gazing: it is a play about theater. The reflection is interesting, and I liked the references to different playwrights that Brook intersperses into the text as examples of the challenges that performers face and the universality of the themes that theater addresses, but can an academic debate translate into theater itself? I felt that this performance would not have been out of place among the storytellers that I have seen on the terrace at Compensar. At what point does good craftsmanship and storytelling make the transition into art?

I rearranged my festival schedule to attend this play, and so my expectations were high. Goldschmidt gave a very good performance and I loved the music by Francesco Agnello (what is that instrument anyway?). I acknowledge that this show is playing to the right audience, and it was a creative way of breathing life into what would otherwise be an academic debate. Still, I feel a bit let down. This was a coy variation on Inside the Actor's Studio, and I would rather have heard Brook speaking in his own voice, although I grant him the prerogative to turn the situation around and defy expectations. That is his art, after all.

Por qué, por qué?
Peter Brook, Zurich Schauspielhaus, Suiza
Teatro Nacional Fanny Mikey
31 de marzo 2010

Al hacer mis selecciones para el festival de teatro, tiendo a evitar obras que implicarán la lectura de una gran cantidad de subtítulos, o sea obras que dependen fuertemente del lenguaje si la presentación no se llevará a cabo en un idioma que entiendo. Tenía la esperanza que esta reflexión de Peter Brook sobre el arte y la práctica del teatro estaría hablada en inglés o francés. Era en alemán. A partir de ahí, me hice la pregunta: ¿Habría sido mejor leer el texto en lugar de ver la presentación? La respuesta a esa pregunta es un no rotundo. Miriam Goldschmidt ofreció una actuación maravillosamente expresiva en esta reflexión sobre el teatro y la razón por la que se considere entre las artes, en lugar de ser meramente entretenimiento. Disfruté la obra pero, dicho esto, fue una especie de ejercicio de auto-contemplación: es una obra de teatro sobre el teatro. La reflexión es interesante, y me gustó las referencias a diferentes autores que Brook intercaló en el texto como ejemplos de los desafíos los actores enfrentan y la universalidad de los temas que el teatro aborda pero ¿se puede traducir un debate académico en teatro? Sentí que esta obra no hubiera sido fuera de lugar entre las presentaciones de los cuenteros que vi en la terraza de Compensar. ¿En qué momento la técnica estructural y la narrativa logran transformarse en el arte?

Tuve que hacer mañas con las fechas para asistir a esta presentación, por lo que mis expectativas eran altas. Goldschmidt ofreció una actuación muy buena y me encantó la música de Francesco Agnello (¿cómo se llama este genial instrumento musical?). Reconozco que este espectáculo se presentó frente al público adecuada, y que fue una manera creativa de dar vida a lo que sería un debate académico. Aún así, me siento un poco decepcionada. Se trataba de una especie de guiño al Inside the Actor's Studio, y me hubiera preferido escuchar a Brook hablar en voz propia, aunque le concedo la prerrogativa de darle vuelta a la situación y desafiar las expectativas. Ese es su arte, después de todo.