The most shocking thing about Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of “Teorema” is how tame it plays. As a 1968 film (and novel), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s surreal story about a bourgeois family seduced, enlightened, and destroyed by a Christ-like stranger used sexual shock tactics to make a political statement about the complacent society of his day. But times have changed and sexual freedom doesn’t carry the same symbolic weight. For all the sexual acting out in this production, society need not feel threatened by anything other than the rather alarming decibel level of the sound system.
Van Hove, the director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam who picked up local kudos for his productions of “More Stately Mansions” and “Hedda Gabler” at New York Theater Workshop, does that techno-thing he does so well by staging the drama in a big gray box of disconnected settings and enveloping it all in a wall of discordant sound. The accomplished string quartet (Blindman) that plays soothing music (by Eric Sleichim) to the family that sits down to another boring dinner at home is well balanced by the four figures in black who manipulate the shrieking of their inner voices.
But having established the alienating effect he wants, van Hove neglects to translate the existential angst of Pasolini’s day by expanding 1960s sexual anxiety into something more compatible with contemporary obsessions.
Lacking a strong video component (except for a baffling loop of “Meerkat Manor”), the production is also denied the close-ups that might inject a bit more mystery, and perhaps a little suspense, into the bluntly carnal behavior of these supposedly enigmatic characters.
What you see is what you get, and what you get is the swift disintegration of a complacent bourgeois family, once they allow a stranger to come into their home and unleash their secret sexual desires.
Without speaking to anyone but the frumpy housekeeper (Frieda Pittoors) who becomes his first conquest, this strange guest (Chico Kenzari) proceeds to seduce the entire household. Lucia, the bored and pampered wife played by Chris Nietvelt, is an easy score. Pietro (Eelco Smits), the homosexual son, insists on prefacing the sexual coupling with serious discussions of art. Odetta (Hadewych Minis), the daughter, is a harder sell, since she’s already carnally obsessed with her father.
Paolo (Jacob Derwig), the head of the household, is the toughest nut to crack. But once this dominating character submits to his inner impulses, he self-destructs in the most interesting way. In the movie, he strips off his clothes and climbs to the top of a volcano to rant and rave. Here, he strips off his clothes and howls, while staggering through the debris that remains after everyone has pitched in to destroy the stage.
In the context of their times, it makes sense that Pasolini’s characters are unable to recover the equilibrium they lost by indulging in permissive sex. But in the technologically advanced and sophisticated world created by van Hove, their anguish seems dated — and terribly sad.