The emotional punch of Jeroen Brouwers’ wrenching autobiographical novel “Sunken Red” plays second fiddle to directorial mannerisms in its theatrical adaptation, imported to BAM from Belgium with co-adapter Guy Cassiers at the helm. Brouwers’ trials are horrifying and painfully pathetic: The author recalls a Japanese detainment camp in what is now Indonesia during WWII, when he was a toddler, and the subsequent breakdown of his relationship with his mom (and every other woman). Brouwers’ tale of survival is wonderfully eloquent — one only wishes that Cassiers had relied more on the strength of Brouwers’ prose and less on video projection to tell his story.
As Brouwers, thesp Dirk Roofthooft performs not to the audience but to four video cameras arranged around the stage like the points of a compass. Behind him, on what looks like a giant set of Venetian blinds, Cassiers and video artists Peter Misotten and Arjen Klerkx magnify Roofthooft’s visage to huge proportions, complementing the body mic that blasts his every swallow and smack of the lips into the cavernous Harvey theater.
Writ large, Roofthooft’s performance is subtle and thorough and awful to behold: Roofthooft etches Brouwer’s most horrible memories across his worried face in 20-foot-tall lines, each tic and murmur blown up and amplified. It’s a fascinating effect.
It’s lousy theater, though. Since Roofthooft is acting for the camera, his performance is tiny and controlled — it’s instant acting, just add video. Thus the performance doesn’t make it past the first row, and anyone who isn’t standing right next to Roofthooft has to experience his emotional breakdown filtered through the camera and its many distortions.
Onscreen, sometimes Roofthooft is green, sometimes he’s in several places at once, sometimes he’s projected onto a small window in the corner of the stage.
And whoosh, there goes any emotional connection we might have formed with Brouwers. Instead of using the theater’s immediacy to bind us to the play’s protagonist, Cassiers deliberately holds us at arm’s length, forcing horror after horror on the audience, offering as comfort only a projected image, an amplified voice and a man shuffling invisibly in the middle of the stage.
It’s worth noting that the perils Brouwers endured are truly horrible and the way he explains them painfully evocative. But without the connection of either the book in your hand or the man in front of you, it’s hard to care about the portrayal.
Arguably, Cassiers’ responsibility in dealing with all this obscenity — the brutal torture of the desiccated prisoners, the graphic and slightly silly sex — is to give us some kind of perspective on it, or maybe offer some semblance of meaning. Instead, he simply gives us several visual perspectives on the actor and leaves meaning for some other play.