Bogota's venerable theatre institution is in decline. Here is a review of what I saw at this year's festival, followed by some reflections on why the FITB might not make it into the future.
The 2012 Ibero-American Theatre Festival (FITB) in Bogota featured a mixed bunch of productions, ranging from the sublime to the banal. Here are brief reviews of the nine performances that I saw, organized by category: Outstanding, Better than expected, Good entertainment, Just okay, and I want my money back.
Ad Infinitum Theatre, U.K.
A small and unpretentious production whose strength was the ability to portray intense and honest emotion through gesture. An old man who has just lost his wife takes items out of a suitcase and relives the moments that these items represent: their meeting and courtship, going to war, her getting a job, a miscarriage, her final illness. The two actors use hand-held masks to cover their faces as the older self, and remove the masks as the younger self. A third neutral person on the stage provides music, sound effects, and lends a hand as different props need to be moved or a mask needs to be held in place. The third body might sound obtrusive but she wasn't and the action and interaction between the characters flowed flawlessly. This was a beautiful production made all the more powerful for its simplicity.
Teatro Cinema, Chile
Puppet theatre set and staging is used to tell the story of two boys who are sent away to live with their less-than-adoring grandmother during the Second World War. As the two learn to cope with the harshness of life, the cruelty of war, and the contradictions of human nature, they evolve into a horrifying combination of innocence and depravity, caring and callousness. The constant violence is suggested and stylized rather than graphic. The overall impression is of a fairy tale gone bad. A deeply disturbing and beautifully creative production.
BETTER THAN EXPECTED
Donka, A Letter to Chekhov
Finzi Pasca Compagnia, Switzerland
This is new generation circus, in which performance is used to invent images and tell a story, rather than just being a series of different tricks to entertain. The pretext for the storyline is the life of Anton Chekhov. Images evoke different aspects of Chekhov's life: skating, fishing, hospital beds. These, in turn, become the setting for lyrical circus: aerial acts, juggling, German wheel, shadow play. The audience can see how some of the illusions are created and projected, but knowing that gravity is not really being defied does not distract from the ingenuity; the image is still delightful. This is the art of theatre: knowing that what you are seeing is not real, and yet being able to embrace it in its context. To quote reviewer Alison Croggan: "Maybe the key phrase is a quote from The Seagull: 'Life should be represented, not as it is, not as it should be, but as it appears in a dream.'" For more of Croggan's excellent review see:
On a negative note, the sound at the Jorge Eliecer Gaitán Theatre was extremely distorted, at least at the balcony level.
Productions Illimitées, France
The preview video for this quirky, quacky show made me laugh out loud, and so did the performances by Patrice Thibaud and Philippe Leygnac. The two of them clown about in scenes that range from a piano recital, the tour de France, a cowboy shootout, a silly chase, and being swallowed by a lion and having to escape through its bowels. Don't look for messages about the meaning of life, this is just great fun.
Tom Tom Crew
Strut & Fret Production House, Australia
The break dancing and tumbling were good. DJ Luke Dubbs puts some cool sounds together. Tom Thum's vocal dexterity as a beat box performer was truly impressive (how does he make those sounds?). Ben Walsh's percussion, à la Stomp Out Loud was high energy. All in all, this was a fun show, but was it particularly memorable? Maybe not. This is an example of how the theatre festival has shifted away from theatre and toward entertainment. The performers make an effort to keep the energy level high, but it felt a bit forced. Tom Tom Crew was fun, family fare, and there is a place for that, but it did not leave the impression of being fresh and new.
The Blind (Los Ciegos)
Teatr KTO, Poland
Based on the book Essay on Blindness by Portuguese author José Saramago, this street theatre adaptation by Polish director Jerzy Zon could have used a bit more continuity between scenes. Nonetheless, I would consider that is was very good quality street theatre. The scale is right, the images have impact, the soundscape envelops the audience. As part of the series of conferences with directors, Jerzy Zon gave a very interesting talk, discussing his work as a director, this production in particular, and its relevance to contemporary society. He referred to how, because of censorship, Polish theatre came to depend on metaphor and subtlety. He is also a fan of the succinct. "If you can't say it in one hour, you can't say it in three hours," he maintains. Although this production is very much abbreviated, Zon wanted to stay true to Saramago's intention. He resolves this dilemma by eliminating language and developing the images, while using music to provide ambiance and commentary.
The book and the play examine the fragility of the constructs of society; how we and the people who surround us could slip into barbarity, with only small vestiges of humanism. This is a particularly suitable theme for street theatre because the play unfolds around you in a way that makes you part of the performance as well as the audience. Therefore the decision to present this show in a stage venue, with pricey tickets, was somewhat inappropriate. This could have been a festival highlight if it had been presented free of charge to a wider public. At one time the festival embraced this concept as part of its mission: to bring good quality theatre to the people, particularly the people who can't afford to pay. The FITB missed the mark by charging for this show. Instead of giving something back to the people, it took a socially significant production with artistic merit, and excluded the audience for which it was intended.
Cayetana, su pasión
On the subject of exclusivity, this show took the cake. This was the festival's keynote inaugural performance. Friday March 23 at the Teatro Julio Mario Santodomingo was the biggest gathering of Bogota's well-heeled "gente de bien" that I have ever seen. The show itself reviews how flamenco has evolved over time. It was technically proficient, with a lot of flamboyant gesturing, posturing, stomping, and whipping about of skirts. The flamenco musicians were suitably passionate with their lamenting wails and intricate clapping. The audience enjoyed the show but flamenco really isn't my genre.
I WANT MY MONEY BACK
A Play About Mirjana and People Around Her
Jugoslovensko Dramsko Pozoriste, Serbia
Performed by renowned actor Mirjana Karanovic, famous for her many roles in the films of director Emir Kusturica, to whom she was married, Karanovic is apparently a big favourite with people who are familiar with her trajectory as an actor. Not knowing her or her films, I was not able to bring any previous appreciation to the performance, and what I saw did not impress me much. This show was banal and uninteresting, and lacked the sense of personal commitment and intimacy that are usually characteristic of plays in which a single performer is central.
Centre Dramatique National Orléans/Loiret/Centre, France
Director Arthur Nauzyciel claims to place utmost importance on Shakespeare's text but he doesn't understand the language and runs roughshod over it. His production is a send-up whose final message is that Shakespeare and his language are no longer relevant to the modern audience. This production was a tedious mockery. If you don't think that Shakespeare is relevant, don't perform it. The cheap, amateur production of Julius Caesar that I saw as Shakespeare-in-the-Park in Ottawa last summer had much more vitality than this expensive production.
Farewell to the FITB
Bogota's Ibero-American Theatre Festival, the brainchild of Argentine actor and theatre impresario Fanny Mikey, hosted every two years, began in 1988. I arrived in Colombia in 1989, so I have been privileged to have attended every festival except for the first one. I've seen a lot of very good productions over the years, a fair share of mediocre ones, and some that were truly outstanding. Mikey opened Colombia to the world of international theatre. She convinced renowned international productions to come to Colombia, and she raised the level of expectation and sophistication of Colombian theatre-goers.
It saddens me to observe that the festival is in decline, and to predict that it will probably have trouble surviving. There are several reasons for this:
It is over-priced: FITB ticket prices are way above what most Colombians can afford to pay. The festival has always been accused of being elitist, a charge that is largely true. Festival prices have always been expensive but this year they were positively prohibitive. Lukewarm sales meant that some productions had to offer cut-rate tickets at the last minute. This loss-cutting strategy can backfire: People will be reluctant to pay full price in advance if they start to expect that they can pick up cheaper last minute tickets. The ticket prices should be less expensive, period.
Commercial saleability is being prioritized over artistic merit. Since Fanny Mikey's death in 2008, there has been a shift toward bringing in productions that fall under the category of performance and entertainment (such as circus), rather than theatre. Mikey's vision of the festival was well rounded: she made sure that the offerings included creative and avant-garde pieces as well as more accessible offerings, children's theatre, and good quality street theatre.
Street theatre is being neglected. Part of the FITB's success was due to the quality of the street theatre. The last couple of festivals were disappointing. This year I didn't bother going to any street theatre at all. The fact that the festival provided next to no information about the street theatre productions, and only a vague schedule about when they would be taking place, did not exactly drum up much excitement either. Part of the justification for the festival, in its requests for public funding, was that it emphasized the aspect of making innovative theatre available to all. If the festival fails to make a social contribution, it will be less likely to continue to receive public funding and/or corporate sponsorship.
The festival's organization was deficient. Shows announced during early ticket sales were cancelled. Information about the productions was not made available ahead of time. Venues were switched and tickets had to be changed. The festival staff was largely ignorant about the shows. None of this bodes well for the festival's continuity.
So farewell to the FITB. We had a good run. A few years ago if I had been asked whether I would make a point of coming back to Bogota for the festival, my answer would have been yes, but now I don't think that it would be worth it. Fanny Mikey, may you rest in peace. I am truly sorry that your legacy will likely not live on.