The first time Needcompany appeared at BAM, they cooked a full dinner onstage. Their latest offering, however, is strictly leftovers. Company founder Jan Lauwers, the show’s writer, director, and set and lighting designer—and I use the terms loosely—has created a piece around his father’s extraordinary collection of African artifacts. These troubling, exquisite objects, laid out on a series of dazzlingly white tables, constitute the production’s set and thematic core.
The collection’s imaginary owner is Isabella, a 94-year-old blind woman whose memories and emotions are performed in a collage of dance sequences and fragmented scenes by the nimble, multilingual cast. Her birth the result of a violation, her picaresque life caught up in Europe’s tumultuous, grisly 20th century, Isabella and her colonialist loot seem meant to mirror the continent’s alternating struggle with, and impulse toward, an exploitative history.
Unfortunately, the atmosphere of self-regard that pervades Isabella’s Room eclipses the destruction and suffering persistently recounted in the story. Lauwers clearly wants to approach this heavy material with some playfulness, yet too often his style reads as arch—even smug—whimsy. But the biggest loss here is the underutilized talent: In the title role, the Falstaffian Viviane De Muynck is stuck sitting behind a table, unable to do anything more than tell us over and over again what a life force she is. Dancers Julien Faure and the deliciously alarming Tijen Lawton (as one hemisphere of Isabella’s brain) demonstrate magnetic physical expressiveness, but their choreography isn’t effectively integrated with the text. As Isabella’s parents, Anneke Bonnema and Benoît Gob nearly manage to achieve humanity, hinting at the authentic vulnerability this emotionally inert production mostly lacks. The performance also features a number of songs, and there are two refrains that effectively sum things up: “We just go on and on and on and on . . . ” and “What a waste/of time and space.”