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).

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