Hungarian-born writer Agota Kristof is best known for her triptych of novels, “The Notebook,” “The Proof” and “The Third Lie,” which trace, in chillingly precise French, the moral catastrophe of World War II and the Soviet occupation of her native land. In fact, it’s a shame Kristof isn’t better known: On the evidence of this daring two-part stage adaptation of her trilogy by Belgium’s De Onderneming Theater Collective, her work might sustain comparison to that of Franz Kafka, a fellow student of alienation and exile.
This production, which comes to the Guthrie after a lengthy tour of Europe, represents De Onderneming’s swan song: The four actors who make up the company have announced their intention to part ways after the plays’ current engagement.
De Onderneming develops and stages its work without a director, and the strengths and weaknesses of that method are amply displayed here. “The Notebook” and “The Proof,” which are running in repertory, are peopled with vivid, often grotesque characters. Yet the plays themselves could use paring and smoothing — particularly the twisty and ambiguous second part.
“The Notebook,” the first of Kristof’s novels, is set in a border village during the war. We’re meant to understand this town is in Nazi-occupied Hungary, but Kristof leaves out such details, instead calling the town K. — perhaps in homage to Kafka. Into this hellish setting are dropped two children, twin boys sent to live with their grandmother, a vulgar and illiterate old crone called “the witch” (played with earthy, spitting gusto by male thesp Ryszard Turbiasz).
The boys are obviously deeply disturbed: To acclimate themselves to pain and loneliness, they invent “exercises” like killing their pets and beating each other. Their logic is both frightening and impeccable: Theirs, Kristof seems to be suggesting, is the only possible response to the systematic eradication of compassion represented by war.
Played in a broad, semi-absurdist style that recalls Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” this first part of De Onderneming’s adaptation manages to be both blackly humorous and deeply troubling in its implications for innocents buffeted by war today.
The second part, “The Proof,” opens with a Hollywood-type credit sequence projected onto a curtain. Though one of only a handful of stage effects the company uses, it perfectly fits this labyrinthine story of doppelgangers, buried secrets and mirror identities. Hitchcock would have loved “The Proof.”
Both a continuation and a complication of “The Notebook,” it finds one of the brothers searching Communist Hungary for his lost twin — who, it turns out, may never have existed in the first place. He’s like a modern Kaspar Hauser, a human tabula rasa trying to invent himself into being.
Provocative as its themes are, “The Proof” — which also incorporates elements of the trilogy’s final book — may be too dense and devious for such a small-scale stage production. Often, for example, a single actor must play two or more characters in the course of a scene. The cast handles them gamely, but all the quick changes at times get confusing for the audience. The plot ultimately becomes so tangled that the actors often resort to standing around reciting the story rather than dramatizing it.
Still, these seem like minor quibbles — the result of excessive ambition rather than insufficient aptitude. Indeed, it’s quite a shame that De Onderneming has decided to call it quits after these productions — if only for the fact that American auds might find much to ponder in Kristof’s bleak study of wartime morality.