Kaleidoscope of World Drama
Chicago's International Theatre Festival offered a bird's-eye view of global culture
CHICAGO — IF there are any doubts about the increasing closeness of world cultures, they have been dispelled by the International Theatre Festival of Chicago. The four-week event, which ended June 21, involved companies from around the globe: France, England, Canada, Venezuela, Russia, Australia, Japan, Ireland, Poland, and of course, the United States.
Though I only saw six productions over a one-week period, I can safely say the festival was remarkable for many reasons. Chief among them were the intelligence of the productions, the range and depth of feeling explored, and the generosity of the ideas. In fact, the sincerity of these international performances in Chicago point out the limitations of national theater events like the Humana Theater Festival in Louisville. There the ideas were, for the most part, insular and even shallow compared with the inclusiveness of the Chicago productions. Even the very lightest of all the Chicago shows, The Circus Oz from Australia, offered plenty to think about for those willing to look a little below the surface of the company's parodistic wit.
Then, too, the technical and aesthetic expression of global themes have their own practical value in the wider arts community. One young woman, a local lighting technician just beginning her career, remarked, "I come here to steal." Her jocose point was that in the theater, artists learn from each other, and the technical as well as aesthetic language grows.
The production styles in many cases leaned away from realism and naturalism and toward surrealism, magic realism, and something that might best be described as "dream realism." Siberian drama
The Yakut Drama Theatre marries ancient Yakut myth with a tragic coming-of-age saga called My Beloved Blue Coast, whose themes are universal and timeless. The Yakut are a circumpolar Siberian tribal people closely related to Eskimos: their culture is tied to fishing and hunting. The story begins when three men and a young boy go out hunting seals. It is the boy's first hunt. At sea in the kayak, they are surrounded by fog for days, and they run out of water.
Each of the older men sacrifices himself to try to save the boy, who represents the future well-being of the tribe. At one point, the old man tells the story of "Fishwoman," the founder of their clan. The old man speaks in the most moving terms of his own longing for Fishwoman, and we come to see that she represents the universal desire for the eternal, for ultimate meaning.
Dream figures and ancestor spirits appear and disappear authoritatively. The line between dream and wakeful reality in Yakut culture seems much more tenuous than in our own culture. The world of shamanic vision lies somewhere between dream and waking - all part of a continuum (thus, "dream realism").
The kayak is suspended from ropes in the middle of the stage. A system of ropes raises and lowers a canvas in back and at the front of the stage, becoming the sea, village, or island. The actors all dress in ethnic clothing except for the narrator who wears a modern Western suit. But as the men's trial becomes more severe, he dons the vestments of a shaman, bangs his drum, and intones as one entranced.
What is most moving about "Blue Coast" is its dignity and measured solemnity, comparable to Greek tragedy. The great questions about the meaning of life are asked and left at least somewhat open-ended. While we have been given a feeling for the very fabric of the Yakut culture, we have also seen the human drama of survival and moral choice in the face of death. The piece is quite slow by Western standards and occasionally difficult to understand. But it offers a unique window onto another society.
If "Blue Coast" captures the unique quality of a single culture, The Dragons' Trilogy apprehends the conflict among three cultures where they meet and spawn a fourth. Thtre Repere of Canada presented the most daring, innovative, and striking of theatrical events - owing as much to dance movement and ritual as to theatrical forms.
The six-hour play traces the 50-year history of two female cousins, French Canadians, as they grow up and grow old in a multiracial world. Chinese, French, and English are spoken. Because there was no simultaneous translation or subtitles (a glaring oversight) it was easy to get lost in the convoluted story. But the mystifying language barriers did serve a function, stressing the isolation of immigrants in the dominant culture.
Despite the language barrier, though, the eye was dazzled by inventive movement and visual metaphor - the whole stage is a giant sandbox that the audience looked down into, the sand raked in various patterns between the three sections (Dragons) of the performance. Dreamscapes in sand
The graceful and yet extravagant movement of the actors' feet, which was as close to dance as to tai chi, created patterns in the sand. The action moves through dreamscapes and landscapes, with the characters transforming themselves before one another's eyes.
"Dragons' Trilogy" is a "big-picture" kind of event, dramatizing the need to come to terms with the dragons of our own experience - that which we most fear. But it is also a big picture of Canadian culture. I found it a stunning piece of theater at times and troublingly opaque at others. Still, it is noble despite its imperfections.
No One Writes to the Colonel, from the Fundacion Rajatabla of Venezuela, is an allegory (based on a novella by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) about extreme poverty and repression, unfulfilled political promises that hold the individual in want, and the spirit of resistance. The starving Colonel waits for his pension check, which never arrives. He owns a rooster (symbol of his murdered son's revolt), which he could sell for a little money that might prolong his life. But he does not. All through the piece a bald , androgynous figure hovers in the background like doom incarnate, holding an umbrella in the perpetual rain, garbed in a woman's 19th-century dress. The staging borrows a lot from sur-realist motion-picture perspectives. There is nothing comforting or reassuring in this vividly theatrical interpretation of Marquez's "magic realism."
The English Shakespeare Company from Great Britain offered Twelfth Night and Macbeth in original productions that cast light into the darkest corners of both plays. In the two Shakespearean productions, performed in repertory, Michael Pennington plays Macbeth and directs "Twelfth Night" with a kind of ferocious truth that does not cower before the awful cruelties in both plays. His Macbeth is a sadist in the end, a man who has gradually degenerated into utter evil. The production itself was uneven, not a ll the cast came up to the mark, and director Michael Bogdanov got a bit carried away with his central prop and symbol - an electronic crane. But Mr. Pennington was brilliant.
As for the rest of the cast, Jenny Quayle could not carry the horror of Lady Macbeth, but she made the most remarkable Viola imaginable. Add to her performance Timothy Davies as the most mobile-featured, hilarious, interesting, and self-deceived of Malvolios, and this "Twelfth Night" was enough to make one grateful that Shakespeare understood the human heart so well. These are modern visions of the plays from a company that tours 50 weeks of the year, instructed by a late 20th-century sense of justice, evil, and human suffering. The humor of Circus Oz
On the other end of the scale, Australia's Circus Oz exuded bright good humor and daring theatrics. Circus Oz is the thinking person's circus, complete with all the derring-do of circus acrobatics, twisted delightfully by the Australians' comic irony. Circus Oz is no three-ring affair, and it includes no animal acts. Theatrically based, the company relies on its members' multiple talents to involve the audience in all its open secrets.
Dressed in fanciful garb, with shaved heads or hair spiked or cropped, the young players take turns with the dazzling stunts that demonstrate marvelous courage and skill, and in the comic routines that exhibit the members' intelligence and artistic sophistication. They mock the goofy traditions of the circus just as they take the traditional risks.
Even the most daring stunts come flavored with canny theatrics. The lights turn red and purple, the rock music thumps and blares, the curtains at the back of the set open, smoke pours out, and five players dance forward like robots. They climb the slick pole at center stage as easily as if they were climbing a ladder. Then they change places on the pole. Then four slide off and the last man - the one at the very top, slides down face first, arms extended at breathtaking speed, stopping sharply just as hi s nose touches the floor. The effect is spectacular, arty, and smart - as much dance performance as acrobatics. The piece, director Stephen Burton says, was inspired by German director Fritz Lang's film "Metropolis."
"It comes from asking what does this thing, the pole itself, mean to people?" says Mr. Burton in a recent interview. "It's quite high, and it's quite hard, hard [to perform on], quite a hard prop, and there is a lot of effort involved. So we thought, well, let's do it about work in an industrial way. You can see the influence of Charlie Chaplin's `Modern Times,' and, of course, you can see `Metropolis.' Then we decided to add a constant beat and see what happened."
In the theater, one starts with a script and then casts the roles. But at Circus Oz, they cast the performers first, and then they create the script. In that sense, the performers truly own the show - they perform the words they have created with the others. There are no stars.
Nothing reminds you more forcefully that the world is shrinking than a good international arts festival. Ideas spread like butter on hot toast, exotic or familiar as they may be. However particular to a culture a great piece of art is, a festival like this one proves its very uniqueness can leap across the barriers of culture, revealing the universal human condition.
"If you scratch the earth with your fingernail you will find oil and water. If you dig further you will find shards of porcelain or of jade. And if you dig further you end up in China...." Roughly paraphrased, this line from the Dragon's Trilogy signifies the relatedness of each to all.