Friday, December 05, 2008

Opening Night at BAM

There's only two performances left of Opening Night at the BAM Harvey, so get rolling: This is a must-see if you like smart theater.

I went because Ivo van Hove is one of my two or three favorite directors at this point, not because I'm a particularly big fan of the source material, John Cassavetes's 1977 movie of the same name. I'd rented it a couple of years ago when going through a Gena Rowlands phase and was bored out of my mind—quite an achievement because on paper the film is right up my alley, ie, it's about a theater actress and a struggling show. I'm starting to think Cassavetes's tic-laden oeuvre may be one of the most overrated in the history of film; he's certainly a director who's created a thousand monsters (his influence on the worst aspects of modern French cinema cannot be understated), though admittedly he can hardly be blamed for that.

Anyway, not having liked the movie, I quite enjoyed this Dutch-language stage version, particularly the ending, which I found incredibly affecting.

Van Hove's main conceptual device is the use of a live video feed, so you watch some of the action on a large screen. When there was a scene between two characters, for instance, you could watch it in HD closeup (and those shots were often formally superb) or you could watch the live actors on stage. Following the advice of my colleague Helen Shaw, I deliberately focused on the stage rather than the screen, though I have to admit it was hard not to lapse—clearly part of a taunting game Van Hove played with the audience. (References to the Wooster Group have been bandied around but they're off-base to me. Just because someone uses video on stage doesn't mean they can be compared to the Wooster Group; the means and intents are very different here.) Opening Night is so formally and conceptually rich that I don't have the time to go into details here; for what it's worth, I highly recommend experiencing it for yourself.

Other than Van Hove's command of the theatrical space, you need to go to BAM to see his troupe. As we know from his collaborations with our own Elizabeth Marvel, the man gets unbelievable performances out of his actors. He makes them go from zero to 60 in a single scene, and in a hybrid style that's halfway between naturalistic and stylized. Special mention to Elsie de Brauw in the Rowlands part. It's always incredibly exciting to discover a true stage animal, an actor with such a vibrant presence that your eyes are on her even when she's not doing or saying anything. Of course it's a discovery for us here since De Brauw is well known in the Netherlands. To think of all the extraordinary stage actors we never get to see in New York…

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