First, a large banquet table stretches the entire length of the stage. Soon it splits in two, the halves sliding away from each other to outline a tomb. Moments later, those half-tables are upended and pulled to the edges of the playing space. On the gravel ground in between, a snake slithers noisily in the dark, leaping up toward the platforms. Suddenly, the snake straightens out over the stage, each end pulled taut from the platforms. The lights come up to reveal that it is a sparkling string of seashells. An actor strikes it with a stick and water gushes out onto the floor.
These stunning scenic shifts unfold in the opening moments of Odin Teatret’s Mythos, introducing a 90-minute spectacle of visual and musical transformation. Eight actors work these miracles before our eyes with graceful ensemble precision. Meanwhile, they bring physical virtuosity and resonant singing—and a range of otherworldly sounds—to their portray al of half a dozen ancient mythic figures.
These feats, and especially the fact that they belong to live theater and nowhere else, provide reason enough to celebrate Odin Teatret’s first visit to New York since 1984. Based in the small Danish town of Holstebro, for nearly 35 years the company has meticulously developed what director Eugenio Barba calls “Third Theater”—neither the commodified and trendy avant-garde, nor the staid mainstream, but a sustained investigation of human form and feeling in the temporal frame of live performance. Carrying forward the legacy of Grotowski, with whom Barba studied, Odin develops pieces through actor improvisations, with Barba shaping a whole.
In Mythos, Odin juxtaposes a 20th-century revolutionary against figures from Greek mythology, who welcome him into their under world pantheon. Oedipus, Cassandra, Daedalus, Medea, Orpheus, Odysseus, and Sisyphus cavort on the narrow, gravel-filled playing space, which runs like the river Styx between two banks of spectators. They draw patterns in the pebbles, whether the deliberate labyrinthian lines etched by Daedalus, or the traces of sorrow left by a lamenting Medea, who buries the bones of her children among the stones. A terrified Odysseus exhorts them, again and again, to clean up their tracks. A man dutifully rakes them away.
Amid this cycle of remembered violence, the revolutionary—program notes identify him as the Brazilian soldier Guilhermino Barbosa—trudges purposefully around the perimeter, a candle flickering on the brim of his hat. He plays a tiny accordion and sings revolutionary songs from Germany, Russia, and Latin America. His repeated refrain is the “International.” Orpheus kills him by thrusting a sword through his accordion. The instrument is resurrected in an arresting moment, when it appears on one of the high platforms, played by two disembodied hands. Soon the stage is covered with disembodied hands, a reference to the practice of ancient soldiers cutting off the hands of their captives, and a wider, mushy evocation of the boneyards of Europe. Communism is laid to rest here, but its bloody deeds are as impossible to bury as those of the mythic Greeks.
Ode to Progress is more playful in tone, and even simpler in thought, as it presents an ironic pageant of human accomplishment in music and movement. “Let us praise the human beings,” one of the actors intones, before going on to offer some absurd achievement—a woman giving birth to 55 children, a man hiccuping every second and a half for 69 years. Each of these statements is illustrated by some simple choreography downstage (accompanied by the other actors on guitar, percussion, brass, and keyboard), which makes praise all the more preposterous as they recall the human capacity for cruelty. In one sequence, a woman calls out the names of assassinated political leaders—Gandhi, King, Sadat, Rabin.
Like Mythos, Ode to Progress has most to offer in startling stage images: a mother pouring sand from the breast she offers to an infant doll, a despairing woman tangling her arms and legs in a length of red ribbon in a human-sized cat’s cradle. The inventive costumes—a full furry white bear, an eight-foot-tall lady with a shriveled skull of a face poking out beneath a straw hat—combine whimsy with dread.
But for all its welcome, simple splendor, Odin’s performances here also cast doubt on the abiding power of an aesthetic developed in a particular cultural moment. Though not nearly as slick or vacuous as Robert Wilson’s THE DAYS BEFORE Death, Destruction & Detroit III (which played at the Lincoln Center Festival this summer), Odin’s work also raises questions about the capacity of a theater of images to speak to an audience that is awash in images already. In this information age of visual bombardment, when everything from Shakespeare texts to Aryan Nation rants exist on a single, undifferentiated cyber-plane, and a Nike swoosh is stamped on Psalms and sneakers alike, the sneering ’60s rejection of discursive meaning feels like a luxury we can no longer afford. In this context, the philosophical and political naïveté of Mythos and of Ode to Progress seem quaint and stultifying, inadequate to the works’ own visual delights and demands.