I saw members of Norway’s Jo Strømgren Kompani perform Strømgren’s There at Jacob’s Pillow in 2003 and have always wanted to see more of Strømgren’s work. Five years was way too long to wait, but I’m grateful to Performance Space 122 for presenting the company now. Like the earlier work, The Society, which premiered in Beirut last spring, has an-all male cast. It’s brilliant. It eats into your conscience, makes you laugh while you’re horrified, and edges the everyday world so far into fantasy that you doubt it can return. Nightmare has become the new reality.

The three superb performers play members of an elite coffee drinkers’ society—maybe the only members. As the piece begins, they’re awaiting the right moment to brew a pot: Trond Fausa Aurvåg meticulously polishes the cups—each in its own cubicle in a large chest that almost spans the stage. John Fjelnseth Brungot paces and consults his watch. The head guy, Bartek Kaminski, sits in an armchair with his head in his hands. Connoisseurs, they almost swoon at the first taste and try to guess its provenance. When Charles Aznavour’s “Esperanza” magically comes on over their radio, they break spontaneously into the first of several wonderful dance passages that have the look of music hall numbers refashioned by faulty memories and amateur aspirations.

As is usual in Strømgren’s works, the performers speak a specially designed gibberish. This time it’s French gibberish (although Aurvåg, when receiving phone calls from the society’s supplier, speaks an atrocious French-accented English reminiscent of British comedian Peter Sellers). You don’t know exactly what is being said (neither do the performers), but, on another level, you do.

Pictured: Miguel Anaya and Sonja Kostich in Annie-B Parson’s “The Snow Falls in the Winter”
Julieta Cervantes
Pictured: Miguel Anaya and Sonja Kostich in Annie-B Parson’s “The Snow Falls in the Winter”

Details

OtherShore
Howard Gilman Performance Space
October 9 through 12

Jo StrÝmgren Kompani
Abrons Arts Center
October 15 through 19

When a tea bag is discovered in a cup (the men handle it as if it were a dead mouse), they’re convinced that one of them is a spy, a traitor. Political analogies begin to leak from the goings-on. Those on the other end of the phone line clearly have a Big-Brother authority. Torture is permissible; two of the guys practically request it to clear their names (I never thought I could laugh even while writhing, at the wacky, but agonizing procedures they devise). Uh-oh. Traces of Chinese culture appear: a photo pasted on the bottom of a drawer, chopsticks hidden behind cups. The men try to laugh it off with crude and hilarious Chinese impersonations. Aurvåg is clearly the turncoat (to us, anyway; he tells his buddies he learned to handle chopsticks—which he does with dazzle—from Jackie Chan movies). Nevertheless, the men affirm their commitment to coffee; coffee drinking denotes manliness, patriotism! But the society is beginning to crumble from within.

A war seems to be happening outside the window, and the men’s behavior becomes stranger and stranger. Throwing furniture out, spouting improbable dialogue, breaking into dance, lip-synching Aznavour’s songs, they become crazed, disheveled, punitive; yet they always return to a relaxed “this is nothing, we’re doing fine” sort of camaraderie. When the situation reaches its most bizarre stage of disintegration, they reappear wearing black wigs and Chinese peasant outfits, moving tough and talking Chinese gibberish (perhaps hoping to fit in to whatever new regime is lurking). Aurvåg tries in vain to remind them how to pronounce French gibberish. In the end, Brungot and Kaminski, in their new “Chinese’ identities, are about to take their first taste of coffee, while Aurvåg warns them not to. Lights within the cups spookily illuminate their faces. Blackout.

The Society went over in Lebanon). I wish I could convey the many excruciatingly funny moments that also send off alarms in our heads. And how to explain how marvelous these performers are? We laugh at Strømgren’s bumbling Everymen, ache for them, become exasperated with them, fall in love with them.

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