The rumors from Paris are true: Bernard-Marie Koltès is among the most frequently produced playwrights in Europe today. Born in 1948 and dead (of AIDS) at the age of 41 in 1989, Koltès has been championed and staged by Patrice Chéreau, Heiner Müller, and Peter Stein, among others, who consider him an heir to Genet. But aside from a 1996 touring Chéreau production (in French) and a few isolated attempts, Koltès has largely been ignored in our more parochial precinct.
With “Koltès New York 2003,” a festival of four productions with additional readings and symposia, this overlooked playwright finally gets a full-fledged welcome to the U.S. If we’re discovering him a little later than the rest of the world, perhaps the timing could not be better: When have we more needed to hear from a dramatist preoccupied with the effects of colonialism and capitalism on the psyche? The son of a French general who fought against Algerian independence, Koltès quickly turned to themes of commerce, racism, violence, sexual desire, third-world exploitation, and psychological degradation. His plays are cascades of free-falling language—often in monologue—in which social and internal realms converge. In reflexive wordplay, thoughts bend back on themselves in characters’ minds, pointing to logic’s terrifying traps and tricks.
Undaunted, the organizers of “Koltès New York” have launched a deeply ambitious project, offering new stagings of his major works by young directors (in fresh Americantranslations). It’s rare to have such a well-focused collective effort downtown, and it may make a useful blueprint. Like Racine’s tragedies (but funnier), each of these plays chases a line of oratory to unravel enigmas of power. Battle of Black and Dogs, perhaps the most narrative-driven work, was also the most successful at relating thought and action in this way; it shows the building blocks of xenophobia in the remote regions of society and the mind. Set in a French firm’s sealed-off construction compound in sub-Saharan Africa, Battle centers on a conflict between Alboury, a local man determined to claim the body of a hired hand killed under murky circumstances, and Westerners terrified their crimes will be uncovered. Dangerous Ground Productions’ director Doris Mirescu gracefully alternates a rugged naturalism with mystical intimations; her powerful cast includes Joan Jubett and Leopold Lowe, and Eric Dean Scott is particularly fine as Cal, a young foreman whose paranoiac desperation becomes the drama’s compelling and despicable centrifuge.
To augment the music of Koltès’s words, several directors chose to use original scores. Battle of Black and Dogs summons interior worlds with Michaël Attias’s buzzing, sliding score for saxophone and percussion. In the Solitude of Cotton Fields, produced by In Parentheses, weaves Satoshi Takeishi’s lush electronic textures into its shadowy landscape. Both composers serve their texts well. By contrast, Roberto Zucco, a sociopathic fantasia loosely based on a real-life 1970s serial killer, overembellishes at the expense of its core. Daniel Safer, directing for the Witness Relocation company, imposes too many additional elements where he mainly needs to amplify the text’s authentic voice. Economical Brechtian episodes are overloaded with pseudo-expressionistic movement, and post-punk songs blare in drawn-out transitions, preventing Zucco’s estrangement from gathering scene-to-scene force.
Koltès’s language is sometimes described as “architectural,” and the directors have wisely embraced the charged quality of space in these plays, most of which are set in a zone somehow under siege. In Rotor Productions’ West Pier, dodgy desperadoes enter and disappear into a mysterious waterfront warehouse; Jay Scheib, the production’s adventurous director, spreads the chaos around the Ohio’s cavernous wing spaces. A wooden mock house, radiating sickly fluorescent light, rotates and advances. As characters make business and sexual arrangements, they sometimes vanish into a curtained-off area, reappearing in disembodied form on surveillance monitors; we see what we can’t, or aren’t supposed to. Demimonde denizens dart between columns lining the stage, destabilizing the space in simultaneous sequences; Michael Stumm and Ryan Justesen do some virtuosic verbalizing as predator-victims. Though he rarely pauses to define individual relationships or to explore the linguistic arpeggios, Scheib nicely fulfills West Pier‘s hallucination of capitalist excess, proving that Koltès’s deal making can take an American shape.
In the Solitude of Cotton Fields, directed by Marion Schoevaert, builds on Anna Kiraly’s imaginative design: Five translucent panels shed their covering to reveal different, fractured black-and-white perspectives on a single street corner, mirroring one of the pillars downstage and appearing in looped video. Initially we see each fragment in isolation, but together their lines form various diagonals, showing unexpected visual symmetries. The play presents a similar puzzle: A Client and a Dealer encounter one another, fatally, on a dark street; scenes travel back and forth from this event, dissecting every gesture, considering the meeting from psychological, political, and philosophical vantage points. Schoevaert has cast it as a martial arts match, with intensely focused seller and buyer (Shaun O’Neil and Terrence Bae) approaching and encircling each other in a constantly rearranged challenge. In the Solitude of Cotton Fields pries open Koltès’s dense text with robust metaphors, though sometimes glossing over the language—an approach common to the festival stagings. Still, definitive interpretations can wait: These artists have succeeded in capturing Koltès’s theatrical essence, offering an enormously rich introduction to his many dimensions.