It’s tempting to regard “Light” as the ironic title to the latest piece from Complicite, the remarkable London-based company that has shed part of its name (the troupe was formerly known as Theatre de Complicite, in homage to its origins in French mime) without losing its sense of adventure. For much of a rather long-seeming two-hour stretch (no intermission), darkness prevails amid a landscape offering up infanticide, dismemberment, grave-plundering and bestiality as just a few of life’s rare certainties on the way to a plague-fueled death. Imagine the surprise, then, of a hitherto rather restless audience as “Light” moves toward a conclusion that goes some way toward putting right injustice and disorder via its insistence on, of all things, wonder. Perhaps, the evening seems to say, clarity does exist, even if the forbidding road traveled by “Light” is largely a downward march into chaos.
Sound like a fun night at the theater? “Light” is not that, and those who have yet to be brought into the Complicite fold may feel somewhat left out. In truth, for all its intelligence and theatrical daring, director Simon McBurney’s latest venture is probably one for Complicite completists rather than the uninitiated playgoer, who may be far happier across town at an even newer McBurney-directed offering, an evening with “AbFab” stars Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. (Who says Broadway’s Tony-nommed director of “The Chairs” can’t cater to a mass audience?)
As it is, “Light” consists of equal parts doggedness and inspiration, and its qualities as parable don’t quicken the pulse the way many other Complicite projects (“The Street of Crocodiles” and “Mnemonic” preeminently) have before it. And yet I wouldn’t have missed it any more than I would consider this present staging a final one: In the ever-evolving artistic climate of this company, “Light” is poised to get even brighter.
Complicite has always alternated between working within a recognizable framework — reviving Brecht (“The Caucasian Chalk Circle”) or Duerrenmatt (“The Visit”), for instance, albeit in their singular way — and tackling the new: theatricalizations of Polish writer Bruno Schulz (“Crocodiles”) or Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms (“Out of a House Walked a Man”), among others, or Sweden’s little-known Torgny Lindgren here.
At first, McBurney’s own production harks back to “Mnemonic” from late last year, which also began as apparent stand-up comedy, deepening (and widening out) unexpectedly as the evening went on. And so we find Dermot Kerrigan’s linen-suited Narrator here taking to the Almeida stage, a rabbit in hand, in jaunty yet cryptic mode. (Descriptive, too: Stroking a rabbit, he says, “is like dipping your hand in warm milk straight from a cow.”) But it isn’t long before we are embarked upon a rending and ruinous 14th-century tale of “the great sickness” whose modern-day parallels are all too clear.
Dick Bird’s wooden-planked set exists to tell a sad and often brutal narrative prior to an eleventh-hour shift in tone whereby a rabbit first glimpsed presaging the plague is pressed into service as, of all things, the creative source of storytelling.
To that end, “Light” is quintessential Complicite. The troupe has always delighted in relating its scenario in terms both physical as well as textual. On this occasion, McBurney seems to have taken a leaf from his friend and colleague Julie Taymor, whose work with puppets is echoed in McBurney’s animation of a stage that knows no distinction between the actual actor and the performer’s potential as puppeteer. Paul Arditti’s fully realized soundscape can summon up an entire slaughtered barnyard just as a Complicite regular like Lilo Baur (fondly remembered as the diminutive peasant of the title in Complicite’s 1994 show, “The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol”) inhabits a grieving mother reduced to anguished inarticulateness: her cheeks encrusted with the salt of thick and unwashed tears mark a defining Complicite sight.
The vaguely Heironymus Bosch-like visual climate of the show embraces such concerns as the redistribution of wealth and a reassessment of mercy and the law, as centered around, among others, the teary-eyed carpenter Konik (Tim McMullan), the toothless Bera (Maria Eggers), and a grunting pig-turned-boy. (“Animal Farm” has its own role in the play’s metaphoric impact.) Man is “a little flea” in the “Lear”-like milieu of “Light,” which nonetheless allows spectator and participant a way out: no matter how bad things get, there’s still the escape route of art that — even at times of lugubriousness — can be found letting in the light.