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Flash Review 2, 9-19: No Rest for the Audience
Shadow Puppets, No-bodies, and More at the Laokoon Fest

By Bettina Preuschoff
Copyright 2002 Bettina Preuschoff

HAMBURG -- For this year's Laokoon Festival, director Hidenaga Otori chose the theme "History and memory in the era of globalization." The result was a fabulous program that, notwithstanding the presence of Pina Bausch and Sasha Waltz, shone without the usual international festival stars, Otori instead inviting artists best known in their own countries. The 10 troupes came from Indonesia, Australia, India, Japan, the USA, Great Britain, Switzerland and, last but not least, Germany.

Indonesia`s "Theater Mandiri" opened the festival on August 22. Mandiri, directly translated, means "independent, modest, able to stand on one's own two feet, yet still compatible enough to work in a team atmosphere." It's a term that's become the philosophy of Putu Wijaka and his "wild bunch" -- affectionately called so because of the patchwork backgrounds of the performers. Which theatre company can boast such a unique mixture of cast members whose roots include being simple workers, students, disabled persons, ex-thieves, and Indonesian movie-t.v. stars?

The company presented "Luka," about a family who, against the usual cultural norms of its time, wants to bury its grandfather in a larger than usual coffin. The story's web beautifully unfolds in traditional forms such as Javanese mask theater and shadow theater, as the grotesque and deeply penetrating pictures depict the absurd bureaucratic norms that obstruct the family.

The enormous linen cloth that was hung across the entire stage was not an astounding new or pioneering design that knocked you out of your seat, but it quickly became clear that the traditional form of shadow theatre for which it made a canvas was by no means boring.

The actors executed the staging perfectly; it was a technical delight. They continually broke out in front of the cloth and interacted physically as well as verbally with the shadow figures; during the whole performance, any rest for the audience was out of the question.

An extremely erotic component was also introduced, a wonderful tidbit after all the action. A female shadow dancer, undressing ever so innocently-- and slowly -- was devoured by a huge shadow monster, all the while bathed in a more than gorgeous and titillating red light. Even though we all knew she was a mere surreal shadow figure, she created a beautiful feeling of realness and conveyed a touching sense of closeness to us all. Devour or to be devoured, that's what it's all about!

All the actors conveyed an impressive, carefree and vivid sense of reality. Frequently bombastic and in some cases beguilingly ugly, these characters were not trying to win any popularity contests. Yet, in the midst of all this virtual "wholeness" of art, I felt like I was in the middle of an art gallery regarding paintings suddenly mobilized. Pictures moved towards me, engrossing me in the moods of all the different colours and forms. I became a part of this story.

The moods were often underlined with mostly loud and penetrating contemporary sound collages that would test the nerves of any sensitive person. In my eyes, this fit exquisitely the sometimes threatening and defiant impressions emanating from the stage. I had expected a more quiet piece of work and lived a turbulent, touching and refreshing experience instead.

Next, we were off to see Arjun Raina's "The Magic Hour." Raina, from India, has developed his own form of theater, "Khelkali." It's sprayed with a mix of forms based on the traditional Kathakali - Temple dance and on contemporary styles that inspired Raina as he was theatrically schooled in London. He confronts certain passages from Shakepeare's'"Othello" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with Indian dance forms. Occasionally stepping outside the action to comment on the absurdity of this confrontation, Raina seems to be winking and smiling inside. The way he regards an audience is so intense that, more than once, I had the feeling of not being able any more to breath.

For about 75 minutes, Arjun Raina gave a strong solo performance, kidnapping the spectator into an unknown and imaginative world.

Otto Kukla's minimalistic video-opera "Memory," based on the documentary "Mit Haut und Haar," is situated in a comfortable room for elderly ladies who recall their rich-with-detail lives via the screen.

This odyssey of life was accompanied live and on stage with a reccuring, toying composition performed by the string quartet AMAR. Younger actors loaned the woman of the film their voices, like translators, producing a generational dysfunction that wonderfully tickled the brain.

Interesting questions popped into my mind: How will the younger interpreting actors look when they're as old as the filmed women whose voices they're providing? Or, better yet, how did the women in the film look at the same age as these fresh actors? Seemingly simple and trite childhood memories painted smiles on the faces of everyone in the room, as we all wove our own particular histories onto this tapestry. Individual memories were re-awakened, until the older performers' brutal recollections of the Third Reich came to freeze any of the joy that had been experienced seconds before. Lots to think of was provided here, themes like how old age can be treated as a normal part of daily life, just as death has its ingrained position. The wisdom of old age winds its way through the production the whole evening. It's the honest face of old age (without any make-up) that tells the truth of thoroughly lived lives.

Pina Bausch also treated the subject of old age in "Kontakthof," previously reviewed by Rosa Mei . So I'll just say that it was one of the most wonderful evenings I have spent in the theater in the last few years, laughing, crying, and simply in awe!

John Jesurun chose a completely different way of working in his suspensful "Slight Return." Jesurun catches his (terrific) actor in a 5-camera guarded cube, transferring the images to five screens fixed in a line on the lip of the stage.

The scenario involves a human being enclosed in a small room after the the collapse of a hotel. A claustrophobian monologue never gives any moment of calm to the audience, and the frenetically changing images on the screens don't help either. The last evening of the festival brought Sasha Waltz and standing ovations.

In "No Body," Waltz tries to make the unbodylike visible on the body; break-up and death are the main topics of this work. The stage appears nearly naked, as a kind of somber, morbid athmosphere unfurls in the theatre, evoking the comic-strips of Enki Bilal.

This mood is accompanied by a noise which gets louder and louder, getting inside of everybody and eventually making the whole theater vibrate.

Overcharged spectators had to leave; one had the impression of standing very close to an aircraft about to take off. Dancers appeared like wretches issuing from another world, coming together for a short moment and disappearing afterwards like lost persons into nothingness.

The last half hour gave the spectators an easement with more light and calm, the overexerted senses nearly permitted to relax. Even a little grin was encouraged, in a segment of linear choreography where the dancers wear wooden dresses and walk like twitted dolls.

While "No Body" offered some nice movement sequences on Waltz's technically versatile performers, more than once I felt like I was watching a reworked improvisation. The mixture of elements was of a kind I've already seen too many times before; an early solo for a female dancer was nice to see, but monotonous.

I was really disappointed by this work of Sasha Waltz.

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