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Dorothy Chansky

Bitef 53
Belgrade, Serbia
September 17-27

The Belgrade International Theatre Festival (Bitef), whose theme for 2019—its fifty-third iteration—was community, favors generally leftist, not-necessarily linear productions that unapologetically take up social issues. Productions always come from several countries. If those of the former Yugoslavia enjoy pride of place, at their best they also speak across borders new and old.

This year’s festival opened with a production by the Berlin-based company Rimini Protokoll, whose offering, based on participation and self-abandonment (more later), was called “Remote Belgrade.” The creators are Stefan Kaego, Anton Rose, Nikolas Neecke, and Aljoscha Begrich.

The work of the prolific company, going stronger than ever in its twentieth year, gives major pause for thought about whether we can—or should—be looking for global human truisms in whatever we experience as or in the theatre. (Sidebar if it’s been a while since your last theatre history survey course: before we had postcolonialism, the guiding trope in western theatre studies was an idea of theatre through the ages anchored by playtexts rather than embodied experience and staking its claim to importance on the idea that there were, in the canonical plays, “universals” that transcended their locals. Call it the good old schooldays.) Rimini Protokoll’s relentlessly interactive, technology-dependent pieces frequently also depend on local settings. But beware the putatively unique when the word “algorithm” is involved.

Like many of the company’s shows, “Remote Belgrade” was offered for a few dozen people at a time, and audience members/participants were given headsets whose feed provided instructions, provocations, and observations. The piece can be repurposed for any city as “Remote X,” and this is where the local/universal troubles begin.

The fifty people experiencing the performance in Belgrade started their three-mile walk in a cemetery, where the voice of a human-made bit of artificial intelligence dubbed “Rachel” invited us to ponder (wait for it) life and death, promising that we’d commence among graves and end up in the clouds. The idea is to traffic between experiencing an individual, private self and a social being always already part of a group. We were dubbed a “horde” and reminded that those on the periphery of any clutch are the weakest.

While “Rachel” is putatively ignorant of the feelings of actual humans (although “she” is curious about same and purports to know everyone’s thoughts, because uploaded data), part-way through the piece we were herded into a church, where Rachel was replaced by Peter—a much less forgiving and more coercive shepherd (the word used for both our disembodied leaders).

The walk was certainly fun, leading us, as it did, through a few parks, into a metro station, to rest in front of a big grocery store where we were ordered to gawk at the checkout lines as if shoppers and checkers were performers in a show, and finally to the rooftop garden of an office tower, where a cloud did materialize in the form of stage fog.

But there are problematic gaps in the conception of the piece, problems the company should have anticipated and that seemed to bring their facilitators up short in the post-show discussion. Wasn’t Peter (whose voice came into focus under a huge painting of the Last Supper) gatekeeper to a Christian heaven? Oh, no. Well, maybe. That is supposedly, according to one of the facilitators, just the name of the actor who recorded the voice. The weakest of the horde/herd may, indeed be on the periphery, but the periphery here only extended to the able-bodied—those who could climb stairs, traverse broken pavement, and run a race in the name of “individuality.” The actually vulnerable (disabled, elderly, cognitively challenged) were excluded from the cohort before we even got started. No one seemed to have contemplated the stickiness of concepts such as, “here,” “home,” “abroad,” “local” when speaking in the second person to a festival audience only in small part made up of locals. Don’t tell me I’ve outgrown the willingness to sing in public (no way!) when what’s being demanded is a sing-along of a song I’ve never heard in a language I don’t know. Here the local was, well, relentlessly local and the wrong tool for this particular bid for abandon among an international gathering.

“Remote Belgrade” makes the point that there is no community without a certain herd mentality—a good thing if we are to have enough order in our lives to avoid being killed by oncoming traffic or descending into anarchy. On the other hand, as recent scholarship on Artaud has pointed out, self-abandonment in the name of letting go and freedom from “civilizing” niceties is exactly the recipe for a successful fascist rally. My biggest disappointment in this piece is that I didn’t have the courage of my own convictions—the courage to name the emperor as naked (or to cry wolf, or exploitation, or baloney). This is, of course, the price one pays to find out what happens at the end or to be polite. But the end was foreshadowed at the very start; we end up dead. So, how we spend the three miles/seven ages of man allotted us remains the question, a question perhaps as fraught as ever even if the deity is now AI. As one commentator noted, this is theatre of Dataism.

"Orestes In Mosul" (Orest u Mosul). Photo by Fred Debrock

How we spend our time on this violent planet, unless we are willing to accept self-destruction, is precisely the question asked by auteur director Milo Rau in NTGent’s (Belgium) gutsy if sometimes clumsy “Orestes in Mosul.” We can no longer rest on the idea that Athenian justice and trial by jury have replaced vendettas and tribalism. Here, the relation between individual and herd/horde is relentlessly troubled by, among other things, which herd and whence individuality?

Rau’s small troupe of Belgian-based actors traveled to Iraq to interview locals and film scenes with them. That footage is presented in dialogue with the performances by the professional actors appearing onstage. Did Clytemnestra ever see the devastation wrought on Troy up close and personal? Not a few millennia ago, but today we have live feed and we have endless
digital images of Mosul. And in this piece, unlike the original “Oresteia,” we are reminded that there are people still living in the ruins of the destroyed city. The infrastructure is decimated; the people remain—damaged, angry, tired, hungry, confused, resentful, guilty, innocent. By seeing the rulers’ vengeance performed on screen in Mosul as well as live in whatever western country is supposed to be their home, we are presented with a shared DNA of anger and othering across countries and cultures. Actually, though, it remained unclear whether it was Mosul or some other Western place that was “home.” Footage of the bombed out one-time luxury hotel in Mosul where the Belgian company worked was the locale for Agamemnon’s return, and it is recreated in the stage production before our eyes.

ISIS is the putative enemy here, but ISIS alone did not destroy Mosul. Western intervention and oil interests were and remain players. Figuring Orestes and Pylades as inter-ethnic gay lovers adds frisson to the relentless question of violence in the name of intolerance, although at times an almost fetishized interest in gay rights threatens to capsize other questions the piece raises.

The final moments brought an unexpected Athena: footage of a middle-aged woman who had done time in ISIS and now wants no more killing. Still, Athena’s role in “The Oresteia” is not to dictate so much as to adjudicate. What does the jury say? This citizen jury—played not by professional actors but by Iraqis willing to be in the piece—constitutes a tribunal tasked with answering one final question. Should ISIS killers be pardoned or killed? They killed our children, say some, but they came from our populace, say others. In the end, when asked to vote, the tribunal is silent.

The not subtle message—delivered by a conversation recorded on a cell phone—is that those who know about the camps holding wives and children of ISIS members need to speak up in the name of humanitarianism. As Jews around the world were readying to read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur, this “Orestes’” reminder that the city of Nineveh was right where Mosul now stands was a timely a reminder that saving a people—however sinful a people—is probably what God wants. Ok, that would be the Jewish God. Or the God whose gate is guarded by St. Peter. Or maybe the algorithmic deity of a Dataist.

If violence in the Middle East still seems like a remote phenomenon, Director Borut Šeparovic brings the ugly face of self-righteous killing right into a western, well-off, online everything context in “Youth Without God.” The six-character piece (seven if you count the student characters’ latter-day hippie teacher, who appears only by video monitor), is a joint production of the Zagreb Youth Theatre and Montažstroj, a company whose name is a neologism fusing a film technique of collage with “assemblyline.”

Four young men respond by “letter” (it’s all spoken into their cell phones) to the teacher who preached tolerance and liberal humanism at their high school before jumping ship to go live among “others” (understood as Muslims but also translated here as “blacks”). Or so the teacher’s opening on-screen communiqué to his students would have us think. The boys refute and refuse all of it. In their world the disabled are subhuman. Life belongs to the fittest. Killing anyone perceived as weak is the natural order of things. Altering one’s appearance online and living in a world of FPS (first person shooter) video games—alternating occasionally with porn—is empowering, seductive, and far more compelling than either lessons in what is unproblematically ridiculed as “political correctness” or taking one’s place in the social pecking order where these white, buff, fearless boys would likely be highly placed and financially comfortable.

The company of actors is formidably nimble, and the young male performers morphed seamlessly from frat-boy types to physically and vocally challenged “others” to victims of violence. The young women don’t fare so well, either as performers or as characters. Lucija Dujmovic and Ivana Gulin played a bored, disaffected gal employed to offer online sex and the (embodied) female avatar of an unseen boy, said avatar being a useful tool for recruiting other boys. If these actual women were you (or your daughter), would you wish for more employment opportunities in theatre, or would you breathe a bit of a sigh of relief that their characters are not driving the killer, neo-Nazi machine? In the bloodbath that is the penultimate scene of the show, the women are sidelined, but here they are not even valued for upholding kinder, kirche, and kuchen. Even what might charitably be called the Nazis’ supposedly good values are eschewed.

The final section of the show is a reading, delivered by the actress playing the avatar, of the court defense given in 2012 by Anders Breivik, the right-wing terrorist responsible for the 2011 attacks in Norway that left seventy-seven people dead. The failure of the Atelje 212 theatre’s technical system(s) to provide supertitles translating this very long reading (they worked for the rest of the show) left many confused for close to fifteen minutes about what, exactly, was being said. Breivik was unambiguous about his loathing of Muslims and feminists. Other sources for the play include the 1938 novel “Youth Without God” by Ödön von Horváth, in which the author decries the dangers of Naziism among Germany’s youth.

On the flip side of the “disaffected” coin, a modestly successful and presumably complacent bourgeoisie was revealed to harbor pockets of quiet desperation in Croatian director Bobo Jelcic’s “Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?,” created for Serbia’s Yugoslav Drama Theatre. The play is a staging of Werner Fassbinder’s 1970 film of the same name. Despite nominal updating to present-day Serbia, made clear by repeated TV pep talks given by the actual President of Serbia, “Herr R”. still feels like a period piece. The eponymous anti-hero was played by Boris Isakovic, who smoothly and compellingly conveyed the longings and frustrations of the middle-class draftsman whose marriage, job at an architecture firm, relationship with his parents and son, his neighbors, and his colleagues, leave him empty, longing for contact and recognition. His family members chatter about shopping, vacations, and problems at school; his boss depends on but doesn’t value his work; his furniture is falling apart; his government is touting economic success while everything in his world reveals stagnancy.

Like the boys in “Youth Without God,” the anti-hero of “Herr R.” finds relief and release in murder followed by suicide, although here there was no blood, less direct assault, and far less noise. Writ large, the problem is that the comforts of middle-class life in the west (including job security, public education, and affordable electronics) are no guarantee either of a sense of community nor of fulfillment. Bitef’s slogan this year is “Let’s Start Love Over,” taken from a pop song. But the riposte of a number of productions seems to suggest a snide “how’s that working out for you?”

The answer posed by the other Serbian production in the festival lineup is a dismal “not.” Igor Vuk Torbica’s “updated” “Tartuffe” figures the family as present-day, utterly unlikeable and clueless Serbians. The con man to whom they capitulate is not a religious poseur but a highly placed government tool. They never realize they’ve been taken in, as both Cléante—the voice of reason in Molière’s play—and Dorine—the maid who sees that the emperor is naked—are rendered suspect and even unlikeable from the outset. Dorine is the chain-smoking, unemployed younger sister of a shallow Elmire, and she is living with Orgon’s family because she has lost her apartment and suffers from various neuroses, for which she is both on medication and under the care of a psychiatrist. Damis is a louche alcoholic; the young lovers are nothing so much as spoiled brats with money. That these representatives of the haute bourgeoisie are taken in by a latter-day apparatchik is neither surprising nor even particularly interesting. If we are meant to think that it is “the system” that makes the family so self-absorbed and also so gullible, well ok, but facilitating self-congratulatory recognition in the form of a distanced sense of superiority seems to me to spit in the eye of not just the system but the very audience whose recognition the production seeks. In fairness to the director, the audience seemed to eat it up. A few holdouts were not applauding at the end.

"Ali: Fear Eats Your Soul" (Ali Strah jede dušu). Photo by Peter Uhan.

Another Fassbinder film gets a stunningly smart reboot in “Ali: Fear Eats Your Soul,” presented by the Slovenian National Theatre under Sebastian Horvat’s direction. For all the festival’s talk of immersion and audience involvement in the name of community, this was, for me, the only production that put us in an inescapable situation created both by physical placement and the intelligent generation of sympathy ghosted by its own not-so-nice evil twin: complacency.

"Ali: Fear Eats Your Soul" (Ali Strah jede dušu). Photo by Peter Uhan.

Sixtyish Emmi (Nataša Barbara Gracner) is a dowdy, widowed cleaning lady who lives alone, largely ignored by her two adult children and seemingly without a social life. She and her apartment are described as “modest, decent, tidy.” It’s 1974. One night, to escape a sudden rainfall, Emmi ducks into a bar on her way home. The bar is frequented by Moroccan laborers who have migrated to West Germany for work opportunities. The dour, fortyish Ali (Iztok Drabic) courteously asks her to dance, pays for her Coke, and walks her home. He knows what loneliness looks like. Since the rain has not stopped, she invites him in for a nightcap. The two become lovers; they eventually marry; and they show us that the wages of kindness and unlikely sympathy are ridicule and ostracization if they fly too hard and fast in the face of convention.

"Ali: Fear Eats Your Soul" (Ali Strah jede dušu). Photo by Peter Uhan.

The first half of the piece had the audience on a single bank of bleachers pushed up close to a wide and shallow playing area. Other than the two main characters, everyone else is portrayed by an ensemble who also take turns as narrators and stagehands, continuously reminding us that we must form an opinion about what we see, also reminding us that 1974 Germany is not 2019 Belgrade. Unless it is. Questions about ageism, sexism, and anti-immigrant prejudice are at the heart of this is it/isn’t it. The narration voices things we might be feeling but that we leave unarticulated. For instance, we sympathize with the guileless and generous Emmi even though she is utterly unsophisticated; we are repulsed by her rude, vulgar, and completely unkind daughter and son-in-law, who are described as “white trash,” but whose behavior and not their social class (the same as Emmi’s, really) is what matters. At the close of the first half (“what’s going to happen?), a narrator voices the concern on which the production puts the focus: “We are worried, because their love, which has captivated us, is doomed to failure.”

Intermission was spent getting out of the way of the crew, as they dismantled the bleachers and wholly reconfigured the performance space to put the audience on chairs and sofas in a big square. The remainder of the play was performed at minimally built stations on the periphery of the parallelogram. When Ali tries to traverse the “city” or when Emmi goes to find him, it was the actual bodies of the actual audience who are in their way. We are simultaneously obstacles, sympathetic, silent, unmoving, and ultimately—whether we want to help or not—each of us is pretty useless as a lone individual who might want to change things. Only a mass movement would really create a path for the immigrant who, ironically, now settled in the west, realizes that home is more than an address with a paycheck and health insurance. Ali and Emmi remain together and (re)dedicated to each other. Emmi’s son and a local shopkeeper accept the unconventional couple, but it’s clear that there is an economic motive to the revised behavior. Small greengrocers are losing business to supermarkets and the son needs childcare now that his wife has taken a part-time job. We are left with the question of whether tolerance can only arrive if it serves self-interest.

“Ali” ended up with the festival jury’s Grand Prix as well as the Audience Award for best-of-festival and an award given by the publisher Politika for directing. At the award ceremony, all three groups manifested surprise, since none of the committees had spoken to each other, at this critical synergy—an unanticipated realization, perhaps, of the festival theme.

In “History of Violence,” based on French writer Édouard Louis’s 2016 autobiographical novel of the same name and which New York audiences will be able to see at St. Ann’s Warehouse in November, the history in question is not national or collective, but personal and psychological. Under Tomas Ostermeier’s deft direction, four actors and an onstage percussionist from Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz convey the events and aftermath of a Christmas encounter between a lonely gay, very young white Frenchman (Laurenz Laufenberg) and Reda, the North African drifter he invites home. When Édouard catches Reda (Renato Schuch) stealing his i-pad and then finds his cellphone missing, violence ensues, resulting in a rape at gunpoint.

The literal events are never in question, but shifting perspectives go in and out of focus, as Édouard interacts with police, hospital personnel, and his sister, Clara (Alina Stiegler), who still lives in the small, impoverished town he was so eager to leave for the big city. In desperation for connection, he goes home after the attack for an extended stay, something he regrets almost as soon as he arrives, yet no one and nothing else seem to offer safe harbor. The very act of telling his story feels to him like a violation, as reciting “facts” kills whatever magic and joy he felt in the experience of union before it turned ugly. The question of how to own one’s memories without fixing them in the amber that is a verbalized expression is part of what the piece wants us to contemplate.

Significantly, Clara’s voice is strongly interwoven into the story. Édouard’s is not the only take proffered on his homosexuality, his sensitivity, his birthplace, his parents, or his intellectualism. The sister interrupts or responds to remind Édouard (and us) that no one in the small town was ever good enough for her brother. When his recounting the night of the assault includes the names of the books he had bought as Christmas presents for a friend, she tartly notes that he was likely carrying the newly purchased volumes with covers facing outward for all to see. Since it is never clear whether Édouard is enrolled in the university near which he lives, much less that he works as a writer, his entire intellectual stance may be yet another defensive pose. Perhaps even more significantly, Clara’s voice is a constant reminder that leaving the provinces behind doesn’t mean that the people living there cease to have lives, needs, ideas, or—at the basest level—citizenship. These are the “others” who look just like us.

Officialdom does, indeed, need templates—or at least readily repeatable vocabulary—for its reports and summaries. In a very smart use of live video feed, “History of Violence’s” mise-en-scène projects huge images of everything from dusted fingerprints to Reda’s pleading eyes to the dreary roadside leading to the small town to which Édouard returns (or flees). Proportion and point of view shift visually, just as they do in the verbal collage of dialogue and memory. (Program notes cite Faulkner as an influence on the source text.) So, the “real” images we see are inevitably selected, distorted, and—whenever a frame is frozen—they become official. In any case, they are inescapable and do not necessarily reflect whatever any of us as individual onlookers might have selected to focus on. Theatre, too, is selective and partisan.

"Of Flesh and Concrete" (O mesu i betonu). Photo by Lucas Brito.

Perhaps not since “One-Third of a Nation,” the now-iconic Living Newspaper written in response to Roosevelt’s famous declaration that one third of the American population was ill-housed, has a building been so prominently and heartbreakingly featured as a leading character in a play as the cardboard Parthenon constructed by Phia Ménard in her one-person “Immoral Tales – Part I: Mother House.”

No recounting of what takes place in this ninety-minute tour de force could convey the surprising depth of emotion summoned by the combination of physical strength, informed use of fulcrums and duct tape, an onstage rainfall, and some almost primitive shared grasp of the power of human will and need.

Ménard, a trans woman with serious circus and mime training, performs in a costume redolent of Blade Runner’s Zhora plus serious wrist supports in gold lamé. Starting the show by separating pre-cut pieces of cardboard from their layout in a huge rectangle on the floor, she next begins to assemble the largest pieces into what finally emerges as a simple sort of house. This is not shoebox cardboard but much heavier stuff, and the sheer effort of supporting the pieces she’s folded and taped into three-dimensionality is not something most of us would should even think about trying at home. At many points, the structure starts to fall over, but Ménard knows just which pole to move and re-place where to buttress the emerging structure and keep the whole thing from collapsing. The soundscape accompanying this labor (by Ivan Roussel) picks up, amplifies, and echoes the sounds made by the tools.

Hearing audience members’ gasps and “awws” as the fate of the house literally rose or threatened to fall was a reminder that, no matter how sophisticated theatregoers may be, there is something preverbal that causes us to invest in narrative. What will happen to our main character? Will gravity prevail? What’s next?

Once the box is complete, Ménard crawls inside and, by means of a chainsaw, cuts strips that leave the house looking vaguely like the Parthenon. She steps outside, finally sits to rest, and then Mother Nature takes over. A huge rainstorm ruins the cardboard and the now-soggy fruits of our heroine’s herculean labor cave in. The architectural protagonist is dead.

People chattered about the whole thing being a metaphor for the collapse of Europe, or of civilization. Maybe. Ménard finally stood up—tall—and walked on/walked away. This is, perhaps, Waiting for Godot for one and without words. We can’t go on. But we do. In Europe and pretty much everywhere else. The next time I need to talk about narrative, character, and how Brechtianism and illusionism can be kissing cousins, this will be my go-to case study. The festival jury gave “Mother House” the Special Award for “a particular contribution to theatre art.”

One of the achievements of “Mother House” was a palpable audience involvement at a bodily, sensuous level, although spectators were seated in a traditional configuration for the duration of the piece. Two other productions insisted on interaction in a kinesthetically more immersive way.

"Immortal Tales - Part 1 Mother House" (Nemoralne price - 1. deo Kuca majka). Photo by Jean-Luc Beaujault.

Brazil’s Anti Status Quo Dance Company presented “Of Flesh and Concrete-A Choreographic Installation.” By the time the piece’s actual choreography was in evidence—ninety minutes after the audience was lined up outside the warehouse venue and ordered to cover our heads in paper bags with eye holes—actual skills and intention came into focus. (We finally ditched the paper bags, and no one with whom I spoke could figure out why they were there in the first place. The obvious answer is to achieve anonymity, but in full lighting and absent any attempt to keep friends apart from each other, that was not achieved.) Unfortunately, the long build-up, during which sacks of trash, largely in the form of plastic water bottles, were littered across the huge playing space and during which the eight performers stuffed said bottles into their stretchy clothing, after inviting us to stroll around with them, felt interminable, obvious, and gratuitous. That first-, second-, and third-world countries overuse plastic and, when they can, overconsume (the bodies bloated by plastic), is not news. I didn’t think I’d be contemplating Kenya as a model of progressivism, but that country’s outlawing of plastic bags gets a shout-out here.

When the performers stripped and began to work as an ensemble alternating between cooperation and violent conflict, the piece took shape as the work of trained professionals. For about fifteen minutes, sculpted movement illuminated the frustrating truism that we are at our best when we cooperate and possibly at our inevitable worst when we become sworn enemies. For better or for worse, the eight, writhing nude in the name of liberal solidarity smacked of warmed over “Paradise Now.” Even the Living Theatre itself has moved on.

The closing event, “Invited,” by the Brussels-based company Ultima Vez, and choreographed by Seppe Baeyens, actually achieved that rare phenomenon in shows based on audience participation: voluntary, unselfconscious immersion. Ultima Vez is not a group of professionals, except for its choreographer and the team of three extraordinary musicians (Stef Heeren, Kwinten Mordijck, and Elias Devoldere). It’s a group that offers community activity once a week for anyone who wants to improvise and move to music together. Simple, yes. Simplistic, no.

The audience sat in a circle on a huge sort of plastic rope. First, a simple repeated musical motif inspired a few to hum along. (See? Adults will sing in public if they can pick up some tune and some syllables.) Gradually, a couple of people entered the circle and then invited others to do so. The trick was to work gradually, absent any coercion, and to achieve a sense that being invited in was more fun than sitting on the sidelines. One way we were encouraged rather than threatened was by the very makeup of the Ultima Vez company, which includes a man in his seventies, a woman in her sixties, several black performers, a young Down Syndrome man, and a boy of about eleven. I hesitate to say “if you model it, they will come,” but they did, and so did the audience. Here, running in a group was not about racing. Everyone’s heart rate was elevated, everyone was visible to everyone else, and there were neither winners nor losers. This piece was the festival closer, and it modeled the corny saying that the only race that matters is the human race.

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