The Theater of Live Chickens

Van Hove, Mee, and Donnellan at the Holland Festival

Amsterdam—For the past three years, Belgian director Ivo van Hove has been program director and presiding personality at the Holland Festival, Amsterdam's annual avant-garde arts institution. This year, his programming had no theme beyond being a balanced, international showcase of his own taste. Fortunately, Van Hove's taste is first-rate: eclectic and intelligent, with a low emperor's-new-clothes quotient. The Dutch press complained about lack of consistency. I guess so, but who cares? It's more fun to see the hobgoblins of a real, thinking theatrical mind.

As with Alice in Bed last year, Van Hove programmed his own directorial work as the festival's opener: a production of True Love by New York playwright Charles Mee. (Van Hove had planned to direct a stage adaptation of Scorsese's Mean Streets, but the rights fell through.) Van Hove and Mee originally discussed doing True Love together at New York Theatre Workshop; instead, this last-minute substitution became Mee's European premiere.

Mee generally takes his themes from the classics, this time Euripides' Hippolytus and Racine's Phèdre: True Loveis about a stepmother and stepson who fall in love. It's also about how incest is really OK, or as Mee says, "True love covers a much broader range than most people think." The Dutch—not unlike The Village Voice—love a chance to show how much less prudish they are than the average American: the performance featured lots of nudity, mostly male, as well as three live chickens, two masturbation scenes, a very ironic use of popular love songs, and an interesting scene involving a set of genitalia and a cream pie.

The open-ended physicality and intellectual underpinnings of Mee's work make sense with Van Hove's kinetic-yet-brainy style, although I'm not sure Mee's collagey narrative brings out Van Hove's very best. Without a stable physical center (like Alice in her bed) or a narrative line, heavy doses of shouting and writhing made the show feel at times like it was spinning off into space. Fortunately, Mee goes beyond manic taboo-breaking to look at what's on the other side: In what ways are people who have sex responsible to each other? What obligations does desire create? The show opens with a voice-over of talk-show guests philosophizing over love's many forms. I wished Mee and Van Hove had done more with those voices; they sounded precisely like all the zillion voices that play in your head when you're thinking about love.

The festival traditionally has a New York link: Last year Richard Maxwell came; this year featured Richard Foreman, Merce Cunningham, and Sonic Youth performing John Cage. The other North American entry was also very downtown, but came from Toronto: the da da kamera company's high-class, minimal show In on It. (You can catch the piece at P.S. 122 in September.) With no set and only one prop (a suit jacket), actors Darren O'Donnell and Daniel MacIvor execute a sophisticated, moving comedy about playwriting and the many levels of human interaction. The play-within-a-play is about a man who's dying and his wife and son who don't care. In a string of two-character scenes, these people become entangled with the characters of the playwright and the actor, a couple in an expiring relationship. The roles of writer and actor, actor and character, lover and beloved turn and reflect on each other until the final head-on collision. It says something about the show's unassuming intelligence that MacIvor, its author, cast himself as the straight man and gave the other guy all the good lines.

Zooedipous, by the Buenos Aires marionette company El Periférico de Objetos, was a weak spot, though it had craft coming out its ears. As you might expect from an Argentine play, this retelling of the Oedipus myth was all about power and psychology, id versus the law of the father. (The company presented Máquina Hamlet at BAM last fall.) To my mind it crossed the fine line between profundity and bushwah, but I did enjoy a lot of the Buñuelian icky bits, like soup with sperm swimming in it (courtesy of an old-fashioned overhead projector) and a fly that gets swatted at the dinner table and returns, giant-size, to rape Jocasta. (The show also managed to shock even the Dutch by putting a cute live chicken onstage, then having it reappear at the end dead in a bucket of blood. The audience, audibly grossed out, couldn't bring itself to applaud until the original chicken was brought out for a curtain call.)

Boris Godunov was an import from Moscow, staged in Russian by English director Declan Donnellan. The advance word was that the cast was the pick of the Russian theater and that Donnellan (who worked through an interpreter) had captured the essence of the Russian soul. I believe it. Watching Pushkin's Shakespearean play about power and its corruptions performed by jowly men drinking vodka and spitting consonants was exactly like watching the news from Grozny. The show was sinister, dynamic, meaty, and satisfying—a big, juicy theatrical steak.

Oraculos, a Colombian performance installation by Enrique Vargas's Teatro de los Sentidos, was the loveliest thing that's happened to me in a long time. It was a sort of interactive, walk-through tarot reading—like a carnival fun house, only sensual rather than scary. You take your shoes off and move along halls in the dark, with soft stuff under your feet, and pass through a series of rooms where people show you beautiful things. A woman helps you make a paper boat, then opens a wooden chest to reveal a lake to float it on, with a tiny Alpine village on the shore and a sky painted on the lid. You put your hands in bread dough, lie down on a beach made of wheat, stick your head through a hole in the ceiling to stand at eye level with a field of grass and flowers. As with the festival as a whole: What happier experience than being in the dark with someone you can trust to show you a good time?

 
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