By R.C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Christian Viveros-Faun√©
By Tom Sellar
By Tom Sellar
By Amy Brady
By Sam Blum
I saw members of Norways Jo Strømgren Kompani perform Strømgrens There at Jacobs Pillow in 2003 and have always wanted to see more of Strømgrens work. Five years was way too long to wait, but Im 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. Its brilliant. It eats into your conscience, makes you laugh while youre 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 societymaybe the only members. As the piece begins, theyre awaiting the right moment to brew a pot: Trond Fausa Aurvåg meticulously polishes the cupseach 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 Aznavours 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 Strømgrens works, the performers speak a specially designed gibberish. This time its French gibberish (although Aurvåg, when receiving phone calls from the societys supplier, speaks an atrocious French-accented English reminiscent of British comedian Peter Sellers). You dont know exactly what is being said (neither do the performers), but, on another level, you do.
When a tea bag is discovered in a cup (the men handle it as if it were a dead mouse), theyre 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 chopstickswhich he does with dazzlefrom 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 mens behavior becomes stranger and stranger. Throwing furniture out, spouting improbable dialogue, breaking into dance, lip-synching Aznavours songs, they become crazed, disheveled, punitive; yet they always return to a relaxed this is nothing, were 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.