A critic in every port: foreign bodies Essay

Published: 2021-09-11 22:35:09
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VIENNA: The expatriates here raise their eyebrows when the Viennese refer to their city as the cultural capital of Europe. Yet, as Claus Peymann, artistic director of the rejuvenated Burgtheater has noted, in what other city does the theatre capture front page headlines? And although the Wiener Festwochen stretches across the city to encompass all the arts, it jump-starts the theatre community with an infusion of provocative international performances.
This summer’s festival declared its intentions with its opening works, two American premieres that are both conceptual and collaborative and that expand vocabularies while looking to the past for their texts. And both received the substantial support from the Vienna Festival which made their performances possible.
The Cave by Steve Reich and Beryl Korot defies categorization. Director Carey Perloff, who carved time out of her schedule as artistic director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre to supervise rehearsals of the production in Vienna, describes it as “sui generis–it’s theatre, it’s opera, it’s also a visual arts piece.” Beginning with the question, “Who is Abraham?”, video artist Korot filmed the responses of Jews and Moslems in Israel and Americans in New York and Texas. (The title refers to the burial place of Abraham, common ancestor to both Jews and Moslems.) Answers ranged from the deeply religious (“He’s my father”) to the uncomprehending (“Abraham Lincoln?”). Together with composer Reich, Korot edited the film, using selective repetition to create tonal patterns out of the vocal responses. Reich has underscored those patterns by finding the instrumental musical equivalents to the vocal tones and then embellishing them. Musically, the piece progresses from an interplay of clapping hands to a rich composition that takes its impulse from but moves beyond minimalism.
Perloff heightens the modernism by placing the singers at computer terminals and restricting them to a clean minimum of movement, as precise as the percussive accompaniment. Engulfed by John Arnone’s burnished metal-scaffold set and five large screens displaying multilingual texts and closeups of the interviewees, the five singers only vaguely suggest their Biblical counterparts. In this city, where the opera and operetta reign, and with its overwhelmingly Catholic, anti-foreigner conservatism, the audience seemed polite but detached. Presumably the response at the less conservative Next Wave Festival in October at the Brooklyn Academy of Music will be somewhat more expressive.
Across the courtyard in the huge Messepalast complex, the New York-based Wooster Group’s premiere of Fish Story Part I and II drew worshipful silence and appreciative laughter. Part I, a radical reinterpretation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, is inspired by sexual role-switching and “politically incorrect” images. In a fascinating virtuoso performance, Willem Dafoe portrays the opportunistic trader Henry Smithers as a Cockney Geisha in white face his own choice, according to director Elizabeth LeCompte. Kate Valk’s blackface Brutus Jones offers a striking contrast. She transforms from a skittish pickaninny to the ex-convict-turned-emperor. While Dafoe snivels and daintily seduces, Valk’s gut-powered voice booms as she paces hulkingly around her stage cage.
Part II dissects Act 4 of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in a sequel to the Wooster Group’s last production, Brace Up! Billed as a work in progress, at this point only the Japanese-influenced costumes and presentational style link it to the first part. LeCompte imagines the company as a troupe of down-at-the-heels Japanese actors, both live and on video, who reinvent Chekhov’s dialogue in Paul Schmidt’s contemporary translation. Slapstick and unexpected juxtapositions, such as Ron Vawter’s on-camera request for glycerin to stimulate Vershinin’s tears, brought laughs and fresh appreciation for the play.
Later in the festival a pair of Eastern European premieres revitalized two ancient classics. Silviu Purcarete of Romania’s Teatrul National Craiova directed the company in a mature and confident adaptation of Phaedra. Striking visual images and chiaroscuro lighting create a cinematic texture enhanced by the nearly continuous sounds of the sea, distant howling dogs and mystical extended-tone music. The purity of the stage pictures a row of cross-legged white-robed hunters, a sliver of a moon lighting a black sky, Phaedra gripping the sheets of her white-hot bed in anguished obsession is balanced by the immediate emotional life of the characters. In the haunting final image, the dead hunters’ stripped bodies are piled in the center of the stage as shriveled old men dance a slow shuffle around them , then throw off their black hats and bulky coats to become proud bare-breasted young women circling faster and faster in ritualistic mourning.
Drama Slovensko Narodno Gledalisce of Ljubljana, Slovenia, displayed solid and moving work with its Antigone. Director Meta Hocevar’s metaphor of the Balkans as the basement of Europe underscores the hellishness of war. Set in a battle-zone graveyard presided over by a drunkard king, the play’s depiction of the pain of war strikes the audience most chillingly with its final unforgettable gesture: A young girl sings and skips rope as the audience ascends from the basement performance space of the Theater an der Wien to street-level normality, leaving the conflict to continue endlessly in its underworld abyss.
Antigone was produced as part of a festival withing the Festival, “Zeit/Schnitte” (Time/Slice), a project on the theme of exile. Playgoers were issued tickets in the form of passports and could choose from over a dozen events. Plays were announced over a loudspeaker and “passport holders” were sent to waiting rooms and escorted to their destination by tour guides. Asked to create a design concept for the seam-bursting four-day smorgasbord at the Theater an der Wien, Michael Zerz designed an environment in which improvisational actors created mini-dramas throughout the building. In front of the theatre, in lieu of a sign, he placed a gaudy old bus inhabited by third-world refugees who loitered around their bundles, cardboard boxes and battered rope-tied suitcases. Poignant and cynical, it was the Vienna Festival’s poke at complacent Viennese contempt for the outsider.

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