Dense, beautiful and brief, “Chronicles: A Lamentation,” a performance piece from Poland-based theater company Song of the Goat, proves that sounds of sadness can be heartening. This work, appearing as part of UCLA’s Intl. Theater Festival, is difficult to categorize — a mix of spiritual ululation and highly expressive movement; an angular adaptation of the ancient Mesopotamian tale “Epic of Gilgamesh”; an exploration of theatrical roots; and yes, a lamentation. No matter: It’s unique, emotional, somewhat indescribable and likely to last a lot longer in memory than its under-40-minute running time would suggest.
While based in Poland, the members of Song of the Goat come from all over Europe. The company spent its first several years in residence at a center instituted by theatrical artist and theorist Jerzy Grotowski, proponent of a “poor theater” that focuses on the purest elements of the form. It’s not a stretch to see this influence in “Chronicles,” which has a raw style, using little more than a table and high-backed chairs for a set. To create a more intimate environment, the audience is seated on risers on the stage of the Freud Playhouse rather than the auditorium. And while the piece is driven by music, the only instruments on stage are a harmonium — a type of accordion from India that sits on the floor — and the occasional finger cymbal.
That’s not to say that this is completely minimalist, just that the focus remains on the performers, who are extraordinarily versatile. They sing throughout, creating a near-constant buzz of harmonic chanting, based, the program tells us, “on the traditional polyphonic songs and laments of Albania.” They move too, creating a series of sequences, some more striking than others. The most breathtaking is a dance involving three men and that table, as they move fluidly and rhythmically over and around it.
“Chronicles” contemplates the themes of the Gilgamesh myth much more than it attempts to tell the story. This ancient tale, pre-dating “The Iliad” and the Bible, involves a half-man, half-god king who begins as a selfish ruler, gains friendship and then learns the lessons of loss. It’s a story that takes on the biggest questions of human existence, particularly the difficulty of coming to terms with death.
Knowing the story doesn’t really add much to an appreciation of “Chronicles,” although by all means one should check out the helpful program notes with an excerpt of the epic. There are spoken verses in the performance, performed in Polish with a smattering of English. The songs though, are sung in Albanian and Greek.
Still, if one can even slightly withhold a demand for easy narrative, this is an accessible work. The sequences deal with sex, childbirth, motherhood and death, and the music and movements, even when abstract, are highly hypnotic and affecting. And while this is indeed a lamentation, an expression of grief, the tone is yearning and even hopeful. It’s pensive but not gloomy, filled with sorrow because it’s filled with life.