03 August 2010

'Teorema' (Lincoln Center Festival 2010)

[The Lincoln Center Festival 2010 took place around Manhattan from 7 through 25 July. With my theater companion Diana, I chose two performances from the offerings this year: the Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Teorema on Governors Island and Complicite’s A Disappearing Number at the Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center. Below is my report on Teorema; my report on Disappearing Number will follow.]

On Thursday, 15 July, my friend Diana and I made our way downtown to take the ferry to Governors Island to see Ivo van Hove’s staging of Teorema for the Dutch theater company Toneelgroep Amsterdam, part of the Lincoln Center Festival. (Toneelgroep is Dutch for ‘theater company.’) The play is an adaptation by van Hove and Willem Bruls, the company’s dramaturg, of the film and novel of the same title by Pier Paolo Pasolini, the controversial Italian poet, writer, and filmmaker who was brutally murdered in 1975 at the age of 53. Van Hove’s been in New York a number of times as an independent director, working with Off-Broadway companies such as the New York Theatre Workshop (More Stately Mansions, 1997, and Hedda Gabler, 2004, both of which garnered him Obies; and Streetcar, 1999). He’s a relatively well-known avant-garde presence in this city’s theater life, so whatever Pasolini had made of his story in 1968, it was pretty certain van Hove’s take wouldn’t be straightforward. (Variety noted, in its review of NYTW’s Hedda, that “van Hove has made his reputation with revivals that run 180 degrees away from your average, typical interpretation of classic text.”) Though himself a Fleming (born in 1958 in Heist-op-den-Berg, Belgium), van Hove’s been director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the largest rep company in the Netherlands (and Amsterdam’s official theater company), since 2001.

The venue for this performance, Governors Island, had earlier been the site for a 12-hour LCF piece from Italy, a stage adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Demons by Peter Stein. (Van Hove also directed Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine there for the New Island Festival in September 2009.) The space was a commercial warehouse about 20 minutes by foot from the ferry landing. Since the performance was scheduled to start at 7 p.m., we were required to take a ferry from lower Manhattan at 6; the island was still light (and, as it turned out, pretty hot and humid) when we arrived. I’d never been to Governors Island; it’s really only been open to the public for about a year, I believe. The 172-acre island (which includes landfill from the excavation of the Eastside IRT subway tunnels) was an army post from 1783 until 1966 when the Coast Guard took it over. In 1996, the USCG abandoned the station and in 2003, New York State and New York City “bought” the island from the Feds for $1. They still haven’t figured out exactly what to do with it—some proposals have been floated, including some commercial, for-profit use, but decisions haven’t been made—and at present there’s little there aside from the park-like landscape and the spectacular view of lower Manhattan, downtown Brooklyn, New Jersey, and the harbor with the Statue of Liberty prominent to the west and the silhouette of the Ellis Island immigration facility beyond. At night, with the skyline and the East River bridges lit up, the view is worth the free 7-minute trip over. (There are ferries from Brooklyn, too, but they charge a fare.) The problem is, of course, that’s there are almost no facilities there yet, except for a few food carts, swings, and hammocks for relaxing in the relative tranquility of an island in the middle of New York Harbor. Basically, you can hang out, hike the circumference of the island, or pedal the bike path around it (bikes are available to rent if you don’t bring one over). There’s a tour of the old military facilities (which are a National Monument, so the guides are Park Service personnel) and there are some buildings in use for art exhibitions and installations, but otherwise, it’s basically a place for communing.

The island isn’t even open for tourists during the week; it’s public operating hours are Friday through Sunday, from 10 in the morning to 5 on Friday and 7 on Saturday and Sunday. The Lincoln Center Festival performances are by special arrangement and the ferry that took us over and back was a special charter for the LCF audiences. There were LCF guides at the landing to walk us to the warehouse-theater and even golf carts, if you could get on one, for those of us who found the trek a bit of a strain in the heat of the waning day. When I arrived at the Battery Maritime Building at 10 South Street, catty-corner from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, I found Diana checking with a guard about the boat and the loading procedure. We went into the building next to the slip, mercifully air-conditioned, and heard from the LCF staff mustered there that the boat was going to be late, departing at 6:15, and that the performance would start later to accommodate our arrival if necessary. This was despite the admonition printed right on the ticket that the “ferry departs promptly at 6 pm” (my italics) and the suggestion that we arrive at least 15 minutes earlier than that. So we were stuck at the foot of Manhattan waiting now for 45 minutes instead of half an hour, with no alternative but to hang around until the ferry arrived. (I took the opportunity to eat the sandwich I brought, but I had to do it standing in the waiting area.) As far as I was concerned, this didn’t bode well for the forthcoming performance. (I’d never seen any of van Hove’s work, but the reviews always made me think of one word: self-indulgent. I had reservations about this production already, and I hadn’t even gotten to the island.)

Finally the boat arrived and we boarded as dusk began to descend over the harbor. I can say now, after the fact, that this was the best part of the evening—a seven-minute cruise across a corner of the harbor with the city skyline at our backs, the Statue of Liberty out over the starboard side of the ferry (where we happened to be standing), and the seascape of the working harbor itself spread out before us. (The return ride, in the dark with the lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn cityscape lit up, might have tied for the honor of best moment of the evening, but we’d had to sit through the performance by then and that took the edge off some.) In the future, when Governors Island has been developed for visitors more than it is, I’ll wholeheartedly recommend a trip over for an afternoon. Unhappily, unless the city expands the hours past 5-7 p.m. (or you travel in the fall), you’ll miss that evening ride back and the view from the island to the sparkling city over the water. On the other hand, your ride would be free; mine cost $42.50.

Well, I guess I’ve delayed the inevitable as long as I can. I have to tell you about Teorema, and I don’t really know what to make of the production. I’ve never seen Pasolini’s film, which is described as difficult and enigmatic—Variety labeled it surreal—but I know a little about the artist. Somehow, I can’t imagine Pasolini making much of this adaptation of his work, either. Pasolini’s art exuded passion, sensuality, sexuality (he was openly gay, though Teorema was the only film in which homosexuality was openly displayed), and even a little mysticism. His films often revealed considerable anger, too. He was a committed communist—he got into more trouble for his politics than his sexuality, though both caused him a lot of problems in his life—and he despised western middle-class consumerism, a characteristic that was at the base of Teorema. Yet van Hove’s interpretation is cold, emotionless, dispassionate, and unengaging. No one feels anything or, though voices are raised sometimes, shows any emotion. Van Hove incorporated many distancing techniques in his script and his production, as if he were deliberately trying to subvert Pasolini’s heat and fury. The other conclusion would be that van Hove misunderstood the material, which seems unlikely. I’m forced to determine that this was one of those “180 degrees away from your . . . typical interpretation” readings for which van Hove’s known.

I suppose it could be a case of “hot, southern temperament” versus “cold, northern reserve”—but I don’t believe in that dichotomy. At least one reviewer described the central character, a young man who enters the home of the upper-middle-class family and wreaks havoc on their existence, as a Dionysian figure, and I might describe the set and the performance style van Hove created as Apollonian, so perhaps there’s a different dichotomy operating. But I think I’ve gotten ahead of myself: I’m concluding an analysis before I’ve given you any idea what the show looked and felt like. Let me back up and see if I can come back to this in its proper order.

The story of the play (and the movie) is fairly simple: a stranger (called The Guest in the play; in the movie, he’s called The Visitor, played by Terence Stamp) arrives at the home of Paolo (Jacob Derwig), a wealthy businessman, and his family. The Guest (Chico Kenzari), who demands nothing from his hosts, raises romantic and sexual feelings in all the members of the household and has brief affairs with everyone in the house, including the dowdy maid, Emilia (Frieda Pittoors), as well as the teenaged son and daughter, Pietro (Eelco Smits) and Odetta (Hadewych Minis); the wife, Lucia (Chris Nietvelt); and the father. Just as suddenly as he arrives, The Guest departs and the family falls into chaos and destruction. Only the deeply religious Emilia survives the tumult, returning to her home village where she’s reported to have performed miracles. For Pasolini’s film, there are many interpretations offered, but it’s hardly surprising that The Visitor was seen by many critics as a Christ figure (Pasolini said he was God—any God) and the movie was seen as a religious allegory. Other interpreters saw the movie as an evocation of Pasolini’s homosexuality and his struggle to live as a gay man (the writer was forced to flee his hometown, Casarsa, in 1950 and go to Rome to live and work because of a sex scandal); still others asserted that the meaning was political and that Pasolini was condemning capitalism and the Italian bourgeoisie (Paolo, the father, turns his factory over to the workers and gives up his material possessions, even stripping himself naked at a railroad station). If van Hove accepted any of these interpretations, he didn’t put it on stage; he seems to have left the analysis entirely to the spectator without offering any clues or signposts. The stage director left the basic plot intact, but he took the mysticism and passion out.

The staging was minimalist. The set (by Jan Versweyveld, who also did the stark, harsh lighting), an open area covered almost entirely in gray industrial carpeting (walls darker, floor lighter), was sparsely furnished. The three walls were low, about eight or ten feet high, so we could see over them into the “backstage” areas beyond. (This was especially so if, like Diana and I, you sat up high in the raked seating area, arrayed like a proscenium house.) Up center was a doorway through which The Guest entered and exited the world of the family. In the center of the set was a wood-and-chrome table like you’d find in a postmodern boardroom. On the stage right side of the table was a short bench of the same construction; at the upstage end and on the left were single-seat backless stools that matched. This was clearly the dining table of the home, but it was also the place where the family gathered when they all appeared onstage together. (No food was actually served; much of the performance was pantomime with the exception of a few specially chosen activities.) Around the rest of the open set, designating other rooms of the house, were carpeted pallets (some light grey like the floor, others dark like the walls) representing beds (for the bedrooms of Paolo and Lucia, Pietro, and Odetta) and a couch (for the TV room up right, where Lucia spent much of her down-time). There were no rounded corners or soft edges, either; all the construction was right-angled and hard—even with the carpet upholstery, which was also the kind of material you’d find in a corporate office, not an upper-middle-class home. There was no character or personality to any of this; it was institutional, corporate, cold. This was not a welcoming or comforting home.

Other than those set pieces, the only set elements were several technical stations built into the side walls: two stereo turntables down right and left and two computer stations about center right and left. Aside from the techies who worked this equipment, these stations also functioned as the “offstage” neutral areas for the characters who never actually left the playing area. Hand props, such as Pietro’s guitar and Emilia’s vacuum cleaner, hung on the walls near the tech stations as well. Except for obstructed views because of structural pillars within the set area, the actors were always visible even when they weren’t “on.” (Even when Paolo went to work, he didn’t actually leave the acting area.)

Also in the space, principally in chairs right of center, was a string quartet (with the peculiar name of Bl!ndman [new strings]—and that’s no typo). They played live music (composed by Eric Steichim) like a soundtrack, but every now and then, some characters interacted with them a little. I read, however, that the music in Pasolini’s film was minimal and subtle. That was far from the case on the stage. The production was accompanied by a blanket of loud, blaring recorded music, contrasted with the occasional softer strings of the quartet. The sound was almost constant; if not from the sound system then from Pietro’s guitar, which he played twice in unmelodic screeches. The boy may be a sensitive artists beneath the surface, as we discover later, but not when it comes to music.)

The acting was essentially affectless. Characters might have raised their voices to suggest emotions such as anger or fear, but it was just volume; there was little emotional content to the voice. The actors’ bodies were similarly unengaged and they were blocked without regard to the audience, it seemed, because they often faced upstage or took other obscured positions. Along with the pantomime—which wasn’t used often; most of the business wasn’t even indicated at all—most of the text was delivered as narration, each character describing what he or she was doing, saying, or thinking. These speeches, drawn apparently from the novel Pasolini derived from his screenplay (which had almost no dialogue at all), were voiced interior monologues. (Some lines, all in Dutch with supertitles, were delivered twice, once in third person and then again in first person.) All the actors wore headsets, which not only made them all look like techies doing a sound check but it meant that all the lines came from the same source, whichever loudspeaker was nearest each spectator, regardless of who was speaking or where the actor was on the set. I heard everything from above my left shoulder and sometimes had to search the stage, occasionally with the help of opera glasses, to determine who was speaking. This technique also evened out the speech so that any highs or lows introduced by the actor was equalized by the tech.

There wasn’t any actual dialogue in the sense of one character addressing another and receiving a response. The only interaction among the characters, almost exclusively between one of the family members and The Guest (who spoke very little—he did have some exchanges with Emilia—since most of the narration by the others was about him), was physical—but always emotionless. Considering that much of the story was about sex, there was a fair amount of nudity. But even this was peculiar: only the men actually stripped; the women all mimed undressing but remained clothed even during the simulated sex. I have no idea what van Hove intended the dichotomous nudity to mean, except perhaps an allusion to Pasolini’s homosexuality. (As I mentioned, Teorema was the only movie in which Pasolini confronted gay sex, though many critics also noted that the film was omnisexual. The camera, however, apparently lingered on Stamp’s crotch and van Hove may be invoking this aspect of the cinema in his staging.) Although in the film, the sex was considered shocking in its day—the Catholic Church condemned the film and the Italian court tried Pasolini for obscenity—van Hove’s portrayal was bloodless; even the love-making was stylized and dispassionate. All the action in the play was demonstrated, as if van Hove were presenting a literal interpretation of the acting Brecht described in his writings. (The narrative line delivery also suggested a literal-minded take on some of Brecht’s ideas—such as when he’d tack on a “she said” to the end of a line.) I can’t say for certain that van Hove was using Brechtian techniques—I haven’t read anywhere that he’s a follower of Brecht—but if he was, it’s not my understanding of the German theorist’s concepts. (I won’t go into a disquisition on Brechtian theater techniques according to my lights, but I will assert that his ideas were much more complex and nuanced than van Hove’s application appeared to me.)

Those are the distancing techniques I mentioned earlier: the cold, corporate set; the affectless acting and narrative line delivery; the amplification of the lines; the blaring music and the on-set quartet; the lack of engagement between and among the characters. In my understanding of Brecht, his distancing tactics were intended to keep the audience from identifying with the characters and the situation on an emotional level. (He also didn’t want the actors to connect with their characters the way Stanislavsky wanted his actors to.) This was all done so that the spectators would look on the play as a new experience, not one they could relate to from their past, and see the details afresh and analyze the circumstances intellectually, not emotionally. Van Hove’s technique was enervating in the end—I didn’t relate to anything in any way; the performance had no effect on me beyond a case of fanny fatigue. In a recent post on ROT, I offered the opinion that using “alienation” as a rendering for Brecht’s Verfremdung is a mistranslation and inaccurate. That’s because he never intended to “alienate” his audience in the sense of making them hostile or antagonistic. I think that van Hove’s distancing procedures did just that, however. At least it did for me and Diana. If the director was trying to employ an adaptation of Brecht’s Epic Theater practices, he’s misapplied them. (If he was doing something else, then he left me in the dust somewhere.)

Most of what van Hove put on stage (or suggested) was straightforward and literal; Elisabeth Vincentelli called it “sterile and obvious” in the New York Post. If there was any symbolism or allegory in the play, it was derived from Pasolini’s work (with the possible exclusion of the nudity dichotomy). There were, however, two exceptions I noted. If there was a Dionysian-Apollonian divide invoked by van Hove’s staging, there was also an allusion to humankind’s bestial side, or at least the similarity between humans and animals. Throughout the play, the TV screen on the upstage right wall was tuned to Meerkat Manor, the British-made cable documentary series (aired on the Animal Planet channel) that anthropomorphized the little animals, encouraging a comparison with human society. Lucia, the family’s mother, retreated to the TV room as a way to get away from her motherly and wifely obligations, but even when she wasn’t watching TV, the show was running. The program and the meerkats were never mentioned in the text (Lucia did explain about using the TV to get away) and I’m still not sure what this was meant to convey. (Variety called it “baffling.”) The other animal image was more straightforward: shortly after the arrival of The Guest, the family dog burst into the home through a doggy door at stage right. He playfully chased The Guest all over the set, frenetically running from one corner of the space to another, up on the furniture, barking and grabbing at The Guest, until he ran back out the portal. (We met the dog, a Belgian shepherd, and his handler on our way off the return ferry. He’s the most mellow, even-tempered, and friendly dog; obviously he was well trained for that brief, frantic escapade.) For me, the dog scene, which was also never mentioned, was intended to show that The Guest had a magical effect on all the creatures in the house, that all the living beings, not just the people, were instantly attracted to him. When The Guest left the family, and they regressed into chaos, tearing the home to pieces, the implication was that they’d reverted to their animalistic nature, which they’d been suppressing in their ordered, empty, and meaningless bourgeois lives.

In the conclusion of both the play and Pasolini’s movie, the chaos that destroys the family following the departure of The Guest/Visitor leads the members to follow their true, formerly concealed and suppressed destinies. Pietro, the son, previously a repressed and friendless teen, leaves to become an artist; Odetta, the timid and fearful daughter with an Electra fixation on her father, sinks into catatonia; Lucia, the sexually frigid mother who had isolated herself from her family, pursues young men on the street; Paolo, the father who went through his life and work with a feeling of dissociation and disinterest, turns his business over to his employees and rids himself of his material possessions, wandering naked through the detritus of the destroyed home. Even the religious maid, Emilia, the only character who remains calm after The Guest’s departure, is affected: she returns to her village where she seems to perform miracles.

It may be unfair to judge the performances in Teorema since the production was almost certainly completely the construction of director van Hove. Nonetheless, I want to make a few points about the actors. They may have been little more than automatons which van Hove programmed, in which case they mostly did what he wanted well enough, but two actors stood out. First, Chico Kenzari as The Guest couldn’t remotely compete with Terence Stamp in the film. As I said, I’ve never seen Pasolini’s film, but I have seen Stamp in other work. He was 29 when he made Teorema and his performance was variously described as “magnetic,” “mesmerizing,” and “otherwordly.” Kenzari’s work was none of these; the Village Voice, saying that Kenzari “offers little charisma,” describes him as a “blank cipher.” That encapsulates my response, although it suggests that van Hove may have meant The Guest to be a blank slate on which the other characters inscribe their own images. If that’s what the director intended, it didn’t work for me. Kenzari, who looks quite different from the other actors (he’s swarthy, bearded, lithe; they’re pale, smooth, stiff), was more like a living prop to me, leaving a huge hole in the middle of this production. (It may be irrelevant, but while Stamp is a very good-looking man, and was an almost pretty youth, Kenzari is not physically attractive in my estimation.) On the positive side, however, Eelco Smits imbued Pietro (the son) with a dash of passion—possibly the only one in the show—especially when he was showing The Guest his art books and, in the end, painting vigorously on panels that were the remnants of his former home. Though quite a bit older than his character (Smits is 33), he nicely portrayed Pietro’s awkwardness when he finds himself attracted to The Guest and, when he’s naked with the stranger, he remains physically stiff, hiding his genitals with his hand or his guitar. (It may be significant, too, that Pietro is the most complex and interesting character in the story. I suspect that Pasolini saw the young man as his avatar—Pier and Pietro are, I believe, both versions of the same name—and put more of his own experiences and sentiments into the creation.)

The film and play’s title, Teorema, means ‘theorem’ in Italian. Pasolini (and van Hove by default) seems to have posed the hypothesis that if the bourgeoisie could somehow be relieved of their inhibitions and societal masks, they'd go nuts, collapse, and turn into artists and mystics. Given Pasolini’s politics, the film may have made a better case for this theorem, especially if the film was as enigmatic and mystical as the reports have it. But van Hove’s literal and direct demonstration of the disintegration, with all the distancing tactics he employed, doesn’t convince me that this is any more than the portrait of one seriously dysfunctional family and the force (whatever he is) that came along one day and burst their protective bubble. Most bourgeois manage quite well, thank you—and even do some good now and then I believe.

In the end, however, no matter how intriguing this description makes it sound, the resulting performance, which was only 100 minutes (fortunately), was enervating and impressed me as intellectually pretentious. Pauline Kael said the film was the kind “that looks like art”; I’d apply the same characterization to the play. Several reviewers put some of the blame on the differences between the late ‘60s of Pasolini’s movie, when sexual freedom and the open expression of sexuality were startling and provocative notions, and the end of the first decade of the 21st century, when those ideas are no longer shocking or even new. Even Pasolini’s avid anti-capitalism and his disgust with the bourgeoisie and their complacency is far from a new theme for popular art. I suppose that could be part of van Hove’s problem, but I’d put more of the blame on his artistry (or lack of it, if you wish). What Pasolini seems to have accomplished with innovative and interesting techniques (the lack of dialogue, for instance) and cinematic tactics (close ups on the actors’ faces) van Hove didn’t or couldn’t employ. He made everything literal and then, to disengage us even more from the action, he used deliberately distancing and alienating (in the non-Brechtian sense) techniques. Brecht wanted us to think about what we saw, not react with emotion; Pasolini wanted us to become as enraged and passionate as he was. But van Hove just ended up making me want to go home.

In his New York Times review of The Demons, the all-day performance that preceded Teorema on Governors Island, Charles Isherwood bemoaned his “door-to-door time commitment” of 15 hours. Mine was a scant 5½ hours for the 100-minute performance. That’s a rather large investment, exacerbated by the dearth of amenities on the island, considering how little reward it brought. Under the circumstances, I think that using Governors Island as a performance venue was little more than gimmick-siting. (The LCF brochure’s description of The Demons characterizes the Governors Island site as “in feeling, a world apart” from the rest of New York City. I find that a little hyperbolic, but even if it weren’t, once you’re inside the warehouse-theater, it’s irrelevant anyway.) Had I appreciated the play better, I might feel different, but I know there are more accessible spaces available that don’t take as much effort or time to reach. Past large-scale shows I’ve seen were at the Park Avenue Armory (where the RSC will recreate their 930-seat Stratford theater next summer for LCF), Damrosch Park, and even the Park Slope Armory in Brooklyn.

[The Italian word teorema means ‘theorem.’ That’s a propitiously coincidental fact because the subject of Complicite’s A Disappearing Number, the second show I saw in the Lincoln Center Festival, is theoretical mathematics. The play centers on several theorems of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant, self-taught Indian mathematician. Come back to ROT in the next few days to read my report on that production.]

1 comment:

  1. On Friday, 13 August, Edward Rothstein, the New York Times' museum reviewer, published a column about Governors Island ("A Playground for the Arts, With Island Breezes"). In his discussion of the island's attractions, Rothstein, who often also writes about other cultural events around the city, included this comment: "Many who attended the recent stultifying theatrical production of 'Teorema' presented on the island as part of the Lincoln Center Festival must have recognized a disadvantage of an island retreat: there is no escape." I'm appending Rothstein's remarks to my report because he expressed a sense I also had. ~Rick