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    A critic in every port: familiar dangers Essay

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    MUNICH: Politics were mostly absent both on and off the stage at Theater der Welt, Germany’s biennial international festival of performance, held this year in Munich. Home of sunny weather, green parks, packed beergardens and well-heeled bank employees, Munich appears mostly secluded from the racial violence, the recession and the reunification tension between Ossis and Wessis that have recently confronted other German cities. Even the closure of the Schiller Theatre in Berlin, part of the government’s 60-million-DM cut to the arts, caused only a small ripple in the theatrical festivities.

    Racial hatred and economic blight being by no means exclusively German problems, it was curious to note how, in a festival entitled “Theatre of the World,” so few shows reflected the political realities of their own communities. The National Theatre of Craiova’s two productions, Titus Andronicus and King Ubu and Scenes from Macbeth, were exceptions. Both pieces explore violence in the quest for political power and are obviously rooted in Romania’s recent Ceaucescu days. King Ubu, which employs scenes from Macbeth as theatre within theatre, chaos amidst chaos, mixes palpable gore with music hall burleque. In this haunted-house entertainment with a 40-member cast, the acting is Munsters-in-drag meets East European clowns, the tempo is military, the audience is assaulted in the lobby during intermission. The production’s finest moments come when violence crosses the line into visceral comedy, and one glimpses the impact the characters’ bloody and flippant quest for control must have had on its original Romanian audience.

    The festival high point–a production called The Street of Crocodiles, created by the England-based multinational troupe Theatre de Complicite–was also politically charged. A testament to the imagination and an outcry against those forces that destroy it, Crocodiles is based on the life of Brunno Schulz, a Jewish writer shot by the Nazis, and his collection of short stories by the same name. The style is good-humored Kafka, where books become birds, men crawl out of traschcans a fraction of their size, characters walk down the wall at a 90-degree angle, woodworking tools become an orchestra, and characters are transformed from human to animal and back again. The chorus’s mime-based work is superb, taking on the quality of claymation as the play imaginatively suggests rather than tells the story of its central character, Joseph–who, like Schulz, falls victim to armed racial hatred. The combination of visual comedy, dark foreboding and sudden terror leaves the audience thoroughly shaken.

    With the exception of these shows and a pair of presentations from South Africa, the festival programming showed little interest in world politics. Luc Bondy’s highly touted production of John Gabriel Borkman was a star vehicle, with advance press hailing Michel Piccoli’s interpretation of the central character. Although executed with great taste and the occasional whiff of black humor, the production regulates its surprises: Bondy’s direction, with the exception of a few sublime expressionistic moments, remains rooted in the standard naturalistic mode, and Piccoli’s acting claims a disproportionate amount of the audience’s attention and dictates a doddering pace. Near the top of Act 2, Bondy adds an indulgent 20-minute “solo” for Piccoli in which the actor evokes the doomed financier’s shady past by his wordless interaction with the set; the momentum of Ibsen’s penultimate play evaporates in the process.

    Far more satisfying was L’Homme Qui, Peter Brook’s adaptation of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, in which 13 case studies, taken almost directly from Oliver Sacks’s book on disorders of the brain, are reenacted on a small, stark island stage. The striking simplicity of Brook’s staging offers little to draw focus from the actors’ work, but in this instance the focus on the actors serves to create a relationship of great intensity, even complicity, between performer, character and spectator. The piece’s four culturally and linguistically diverse actors play both doctors and patients, and, although they work carefully to physically embody the characters, no attempt is made at naturalistic pretense. Accompanied by a live Middle Eastern musical score, they simply present the characters and the case. The result is surprisingly moving.

    The Teatr na Pokrovke production of The Three Sisters shares some of Brook’s pre-occupations, including repositioning the audience in relationship to the actors and the characters. Audience members sit at the Pozorov dinner table, eat sandwiches and apple cake, and are invited to take part in a birthday toast to Irina; when the table is cleared, the audience is moved to the side and the actors continue to play in their midst. The intimacy feels exhilaratingly intrusive; when Natascha unbuttons Andrej’s shirt and runs her fingers through his chest hair, the close-ups are akin to sitting inside a television set.

    But the Russian troupe’s virtual reality-style Three Sisters is not ultimately as rich or evocative as the Wooster Group of New York’s variation on the same play, offered with a companion adaptation of The Emperor Jones under the title Fish Story Parts I and II. Mixing live action with collaged sound and video, the Wooster Group uses character as mask, video as puppetry, and movement and sound as plot. The experience, part theatrical crossword puzzle and part jazz improvisation on Chekov’s play, manages to reframe the text and discover contemporary reading of the Russian master’s musings on the future of the past. The result is a theatrical world as foreign and familiar as Blade Runner and, despite Munich’s beergarden camouflage, as dangerous as our own.

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