Of course, strictly theatrical most of the offerings were not. One of the pleasures of such world-theater festivals is the opportunity to see just how audacious theater can be beyond the hidebound boroughs of New York — but as the festival proved, that can also be one of its terrors.
On the upside, there was the sublimely theatrical, breathtakingly inventive “The Street of Crocodiles,” from the U.K.’s Theatre de Complicite, which also brought Broadway the similarly astonishing and sadly underappreciated “The Chairs.”
Part ballet, part cartoon Kafka and part Marx Brothers movie, “Street of Crocodiles,” like “The Chairs,” was directed by Simon McBurney, the company’s founder and artistic director, who here trained his fertile mind on the stories of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz.
Schulz’s style is utterly original. In prose that undulates and seems almost to breathe, he conjures up a fantastical world both comic and macabre, seen through the still unfettered imagination of a child. Tables and chairs, curtains and streets all pulsate with life, time loses its hard consistency, men and women turn into animals or shrink into nothingness.
No less likely material for stage adaptation could be imagined — narrative is incidental to Schulz’s work, a mere wire hanger on which gaudy gowns of elaborate, sensual prose are hung — and yet the Theatre de Complicite troupe brought Schulz’s world to magical life. Wisely, they didn’t attempt to shape a cohesive story out of Schulz’s vision. McBurney and Co. merely folded the iconography of his work into the framework of his biography, and captured the world as Schulz saw it in a series of vignettes that dazzled with theatrical invention.
The cast of 10 was led by the gaunt, haunting Cesar Sarachu, who played the Schulz figure, Joseph, with exquisite physical and emotional sensitivity. Sarachu, like the rest of the performers, performed as a dancer as much as an actor in this elaborately choreographed show. The actors swooped and dived and tossed themselves around the stage, chattering in a variety of tongues and themselves handling a strange array of effects. Books held open became flocks of flapping birds, wooden desks were made to chatter like monkeys, as the staging echoed the endlessly transmogrifying world of Schulz’s prose.
For all the weird humor of the show, its dark palette (created by set designer Rae Smith and lighting designer Paule Constable) and the ominous sound design of Chris Shutt reminded you that Schulz’s vision was marked by a child’s terror of the world’s hugeness and strangeness, symbolized by the dark winds that continually rage through the streets of the city in his fiction.
And so, all too aptly, “Street of Crocodiles” ended with Joseph’s sudden and senseless death. Intensely beautiful as it was, the final tableau was terribly sad, as we were made to realize that the death of every man is also the death of a child, and the death of a universe of utterly distinctive perception.
Like “Street of Crocodiles,” two of the other three theatrical offering were adapted from previous works of literature. But if “Crocodiles” revealed the rewards of triumphing over the difficulties inherent in such translations, the other two illustrated the painful — indeed almost excruciating — cost of failure.
The Gesher Theater of Israel was the only company to offer two productions at the festival. “Village,” an original play by noted Israeli author Joshua Sobol, was a gently comic evocation of life in a farming community in Palestine just before the creation of the state of Israel, viewed through the smiling eyes of a young boy.
A sort of “Our Town” of Israel, including the dark undercurrents of mortality , the play was directed by Yevgeny Arye, the founder and leader of the Gesher, who shaped some impressive ensemble work from his actors, and a handful of fine individual performances (particularly from Israel [Sascha] Demidov as the young boy). But his direction was sometimes at odds with the delicate textures of the play: Arye’s style tends toward the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink school, and the play’s emotional climaxes were all too often bungled by overkill.
And the stylistic bombast that occasionally marred “Village” almost destroyed the Gesher’s second offering, “Adam Resurrected,” an adaptation of a Holocaust-themed novel by Yoram Kaniuk that was also directed by Arye.
You could see the theatrical appeal of the Kaniuk novel. The central character is a German Jewish Holocaust survivor, Adam Stein (Igor Mirkurbanov), who made it through the concentration camp by putting his expertise as a circus clown to twisted use, distracting victims on the way to the gas chamber with his antics. He was also forced to pose as a dog by the sadistic camp commandant. But survive he did, only to end up in a psychiatric institution in Israel, where past and present blur, and the horrors of his life parade before him in a haze of circus-like apparitions.
But that is just the simplest rendering of the story’s primary strand, and the elaboration of its various themes and a scene-by-scene description took up a good three pages of fine print in the program — not an encouraging sign. My favorite snippet: “Meanwhile, she recounts the story of meeting with Elder Schwester, whose bizarre erotic experience (induced by African mosquitoes) persuaded Seizling that she was chosen to bring God back to man …” Oy!
Taking the circus image as his cue, director Arye staged the play in a big-top tent, with the audience on wooden risers surrounding a sand ring. For nearly three hours, a numbing array of staging gimmickry was shuttled in and out of the ring, most courtesy of a set of train tracks running through its center, all of it more distracting than illuminating.
“Adam Resurrected” was so utterly careless of such theatrical niceties as characterization and comprehensibility that as the hours passed, one began to get the uneasy feeling that a director was exploiting material touching on very sensitive topics merely to dazzle audiences with his bravura and (pseudo-) daring technique. Arye’s heart might be in the right place, but in this case his aesthetic judgment certainly wasn’t.
The final offering of the festival came from the aggressive Spanish multimedia troupe La Fura dels Baus, which aimed to bring Goethe’s “Faust” into the Internet age. With its length, formal complexity and heavy doses of philosophical rumination, “Faust” has always been a text that cries out for distillation and simplification — and in prior versions that’s generally what it has received. Not so here, and there was something perversely admirable in La Fura’s stubborn resistance to indulge any such impulses, though the result wasn’t particularly enjoyable. This “Faust” — called “F@ust: Version 3.0” — was almost as dense as Goethe’s original, but it was also twice as obscure.
The idea of updating the Faust tale to take in the horizons of the information age is an intriguing one. At its simplest, the story of Faust explores man’s unquenchable desire for knowledge and experience, and the dark underside of such aspirations. With the Internet purportedly opening up each user to a universe of easily accessible information, are the potential abuses of knowledge likewise expanding? (The apparent ease with which pedophiles can connect with their would-be victims via the Web is a disturbing indication that human iniquity may be flowing as freely as information in this brave new world.)
But the folks behind this new “Faust” didn’t explore such angles with any dramatic rigor; it was never clear what the Internet gloss has to do with what was going on onstage — despite the somewhat obvious use of a net as metaphor. This troupe is more interested in startling the audience than communicating with it. (It’s the kind of show that you just knew was going to end with a jarring burst of light in the audience’s face.)
“F@ust: Version 3.0” was basically an inundation of imagery accompanied by a dialogue soundtrack with occasional “samples” from the legend of the title.
The actors performed before a giant wall of screens on which a series of films are projected, most containing various MTV-style juxtapositions of willfully grotesque images. Onstage, there was a drag queen in monster platforms; a fancy set of mechanical wings that Faust flapped around in, Icarus-like; a creepy amniotic sac-like plastic bag from which he later emerged, presumably signifying a rebirth; and various other mechanical contraptions, some of which left me completely mystified (what’s with the big hair dryer thing downstage right?).
The carefully thought out layering and repeating of imagery, and the accretion of meaning that comes with its artful use (and which so spectacularly marked “The Street of Crocodiles”), wasn’t in evidence. There was merely visual flash and fire, and high-tech gizmos, all of it signifying, if not nothing, then not as much as one would hope.