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Political violence can afflict a place in an instant. It can arrive with pounding on the door in the middle of the night or with flanks of trench-coated men storming a village. Through setting and spectacle, Carmen Funebre presents us with these grim facts about power and brutality. The audience gathers inside a roofless tobacco warehouse along the Brooklyn waterfront at Empire Fulton Ferry, gazing at a fluttering American flag atop the bridge overhead. Across the river stands the charged backdrop of lower Manhattan. Suddenly search lamps intrude through old window gratings along the side walls. Klieg lights flare in the vast concrete yard. Towering men in medieval breastplates and executioner’s hoods—mounted on giant stilts—burst into the space, chasing and flogging desperate civilians, eventually herding them through giant gates upstage.
Carmen Funebre—the title means “funeral song”—is an almost-wordless 1994 physical theater piece created from refugees’ accounts of the atrocities committed in the Balkan wars. Under Pawel Szkotak’s direction, Polish company Teatr Biuro Podrozy (usually translated as Travel Bureau Theater) stage a spectacle reaching beyond history for the eternal, as Polish theater directors (c.f. Tadeusz Kantor) have always done. The gates upstage first suggest death camps, and later, as they burst into flames, spiritual realms. The penultimate scene brings the striking specter of Death, looming monstrously above humanity, onto a wasted battlefield of burnt crosses. There he exults in a jubilant, ecstatic dance of triumph amid the smoking embers. Unfurling and waving his enormous black flag, the reaper rejoices in nationalism’s ultimate rewards. Though such images don’t call on nuance, that’s hardly the point; the company’s forceful pageantry testifies mightily to the paroxysms of political violence most of the world now endures.