Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Who's modern?

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If you're about to go and see Quartett with Isabelle Huppert, you might prefer to skip reading this entry. In the first 10 minutes of the show last night at BAM, the design of the play and its directing felt so 80s, I almost fainted. I remember the excitement of seeing Peer Gynt directed by Robert Wilson in London. But that was quite a few years ago. I worked on keeping an open mind last night, and it paid off. The performances were vibrant, not just Isabelle Huppert but the whole cast. And the play is beautiful. It updates to the 20th century the delectation of 18th century French literature, that exquisite combination of formal language and blatant eroticism. While Robert Wilson's direction grew on me, it didn't create for me the excitement of the Lepage production at BAM earlier this season. For me, Lepage redifines theater. The relationship between reality, the show and the audience is altered. In Lipsynch, the words, the acting is not so important. The play works as a kind of modern pageant of situations, stories that we all know. Instead of Joseph leading Mary to Bethlehem, a sister takes her sibling out of mental hospital. A doctor operates on a patient’s brain. A young woman is sold by one man to another man. As the sets are more realistic than we have become used to in contemporary theater, the delivery of the lines understated, there has to be a reference to cinema. But it is not staged cinema. The evident theme of the play is word. Communication. Media. We are served a big dish of it, at nauseam. Word as lipsynched dialogue, word lipread, word recorded word forgotten word created and recreated. From a baby’s cry to an opera singer via recorded announcements, robot’s voices and poetry. No stone unturned.
The sets are black and metal and white. They’re gimmicky. The play’s full of gimmick. Electronics. Gadgets. Made out of modules, they are as much a part of the play as the characters are. The world in which the character evolves is constantly mutating around them. The plane seen from the outside, opens up, revolves and becomes its interior. The modules come together to form one setting and are split again, inverted and work as a completely different setting. They are realistic to some extent. The technology is at the service of the play director. For sure a lot of the poetry from the set is created by the lighting. Where the set representing the inside of a plane is nearly a copy, the small back lights which turn every passenger into a shadow manage to give this most banal of settings a poetic mystery. In every scene the lighting transcends the style to turn it into something spiritual or poetic. There is so much inventiveness in the craft of the staging. At the end of the play, the stage hands come to receive their part of the applause, as they are an integral part of the play. It shamelessly stuns the audience by tricks bordering on magic. The car moves on the stage with its lights on. It doesn’t look like a car, there is not mistaking here, but it has wheels, it moves and it lights. And somehow, it’s touching. That is the mystery of the play. While the sets are techno, the situations are contrived, the dialogues and the acting are banal, the result is hugely human. Compelling. It creates a balletic representation of our human condition, one where maybe technology can be set to serve humanity, and not the other way round. Where we can still be playful. Hopeful. And deeply care about each other.

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