Friday, July 20, 2007

Uptown harvest

I've quite enjoyed the three shows I've seen so far at the Lincoln Center Festival. At this rate 2007 may be my favorite edition, and I've been in town for almost all of them.

The award for best surprise goes to Fables de La Fontaine. I had pretty much dismissed Robert Wilson (see my account of Quartett for the latest entry in an alarmingly long list of frustrating experiences) and went mainly to hear the classic text enunciated by actors from the Comédie-Française. The thing with Wilson is that at this point, he has a one-style-fits-all approach; when it doesn't fit the material, you're in for hours of stylish ennui, but when it does, the results are spectacular and completely unique—for better or for worse, you immediately know when you're watching a Wilson show. Miraculously, his style meshed perfectly with the wicked cruelty of La Fontaine's fables, in which animals act out short morality tales. (I won't soon forget Wolf's red, red tongue flicking out in gleeful anticipation at the sight of hapless Lamb.) For once, Wilson's hieratic, emotionless staging brought out subtext instead of flattening everything in sight. As an added bonus, I was lucky to attend one of the performances in which the Comédie-Française's big boss, Muriel Mayette, appeared (she was replacing the injured Madeleine Marion).

I was also impressed by Gemelos (pictured), brought to us by the Chilean Compañia Teatro Cinema. The play is based on Agota Kristof's The Notebook, the first in a trilogy (which I actually read about ten years ago) set in an unnamed post-WWII communist country, likely to be Kristof's own Hungary. While I was surprised at first by the production's warm visual tones (I tend to associate the Iron Curtain with a gray palette), the staging's inventiveness quickly became evident. The three actors evolved in what looked like a puppet theater and used stylized movement and perspective tricks to draw us into Kristof's increasingly sinister story. Shades of Shockheaded Peter and various other productions from the Improbable Company in the treatment, and I loved the way the show's darkness so gradually set in.

The most radical show so far was Un Hombre que se Ahoga, an adaptation of Chekhov's Three Sisters by a Buenos Aires company. Director Daniel Veronese (whose Women Dreamt Horses I kick myself for missing at PS 122 a few months ago) basically gave the play the kind of treatment people in cardiac arrest get on ER: two paddles to the chest and ZAP! His note in the program explains "It is a play without cuts in time or space; without music or light cues; with a summarized text; with modified scenes, their location shifted; and with characters wandering around, sometimes in improper situations."

Oh god…

But wait, that's not all! Veronese also effected a "change in gender of each one of Chekhov's characters. There are now three brothers confined in a house surrounded by military women."

It took me a little while to get used to the reversal—the men were not playing women in drag but men, ie Masha, Olga and Irina were dudes' names, while Andrei was a female character. Once you accepted the premise—and why not?—and the fact that this would be a radical jumble of Three Sisters, the production proved surprisingly enjoyable; it helped that the actors (wearing their regular street clothes) were superb throughout, with special kudos for Pablo Messiez' impetuously slackerish Natasha and Claudio Da Passano's hangdog, world-weary Olga.

Perhaps the prospect of extreme deconstruction—read: boring—scared off local theatergoers, since there were plenty of empty seats at the performance I attended. Too bad: Far from being a sterile, barren academic jerk-off, the show was gloriously physical and surprisingly accessible, and at 90 minutes, a quick and efficient punch. It made me ponder once again the sad state of experimentation when it comes to NYC companies.

Cherry on the cake: At the post-performance Q&A, the audience (mostly Spanish-speaking) fired off at the actors some of the most thoughtful, articulate questions I've ever heard at any of these events. You reap what you sow…

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