Relatively Foreign Affairs


Heavier on theater events than its predecessors, this year’s Lincoln Center Festival (which will have ended before these interim thoughts appear) is also unusual in featuring works made by foreign troupes for viewing in their home cities. Past festivals were plagued by the kind of vibrancy-free theater that always seems to have been manufactured in grant expediters’ offices, solely to bore the rich suckers who patronize the world’s festival circuit. This year’s offerings may reflect the same troubling questions about the condition of theater worldwide, but at least you could believe, while watching, that they existed because an audience residing in France or Chile or Taiwan might actually go to see them. In lieu of the numbing hours of artistic emptiness that the culture snobs cure with gulps of overpriced champagne, this year’s festival was full of moments�though too often they were only moments�when theater seemed like something human beings could enjoy, take pride in, and want to share with people in other countries.

Not that these imported events offered any travel-bureau exoticism. These days the world is one giant culture mart, and everyone’s interested in marketing to everyone else. No tradition is immune from pop-modernist incursions; nobody’s source material has been left unslimed by the globalized tentacles of the mass media. All traditions are now impure; to carry on at all, traditionalists must adjust accordingly. That’s not a worst-case reality: All cultural tradition is porous anyway. Authenticity, like the Golden Age, is only a myth. For any tradition to survive unpetrified, the old and the new need to achieve a balance. Ironically, after a century of pressure to modernize, it’s the incessant quest for newness that has come to look sterile, littering the world’s stages with malformed chunks of cultural debris. In that context, the simple pleasures of tradition start to look pretty good by comparison.

What constitutes tradition, of course, isn’t easy to gauge. Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII believes that his Heisei Nakamura-za company is bringing back the boisterousness and frank audience appeal with which Kabuki began in the mid-17th century. But his restoration of the early Kabuki play commonly known as Hokaibo (the longer actual title has to do with goings-on by the Sumida River) tended to prove that, as in any art form, catering to the masses doesn’t guarantee enjoyment. Fielding an excellent troupe and lavish, colorful designs that brightened Avery Fisher Hall tremendously, Hokaibo was weighed down by its title role, played by Kanzaburo, a crooked monk whose superhuman power to be in the right place at the wrong time for everybody else (he even manages to come back from the dead in lieu of someone else’s vengeful spirit) can make him as tiresome as any benevolent deus ex machina. Kanzaburo mugged mightily, ad libbing in alternate English and Japanese, till the serious side of the story, though well played, with sumptuous musical accompaniment, nearly got lost in the shuffle. When he toyed with a prop skull and made the inevitable Yorick jokes, I felt the full force of Hamlet’s injunction, “And let your clowns not speak more than is set down for them.”

Latin America, like our country, boasts a polyglot heritage, and the three Latin American troupes in the festival all gave works based on European materials. (I missed Argentina’s contribution, a gender-reversed Chekhov experiment.) For a novice to the culture like myself, it wasn’t easy to determine what, if anything, was characteristically Latin American about them. De Monstruos y Prodigios (Of Monsters and Prodigies), by Mexico City’s Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes, started with an intriguing subject—the history of the castrati who, for about a century and a half, dominated European opera singing. But the troupe provided nothing dramatically meaningful to enrich the subject, merely a string of facts and examples, performed with canny musical skill, but undercut, in a misbegotten attempt to enliven them, with inane jokes and slapstick. It all culiminated in a food fight, provoked by plants in the audience, to symbolize the French Revolution. It was like a History Channel documentary that some idiot had intercut with the lamest sequences from Abbott and Costello. Except for the appearance of an actor dressed as Napoleon astride a beautiful white horse—which behaved with considerably more dignity and grace than his human colleagues—I might as well have been back at Hokaibo, where the clowning was more skillful and both drama and music were better sustained. The white horse’s nobility, combined with Robert Wilson’s use the previous week of a donkey to narrate the fable of the fox and the crow, started to make me wonder if we aren’t approaching, at least in the theater, that Swiftian time when the quadrupeds will prove to be smarter than us bipeds.

The Chileans of Santiago’s Compa�ia Teatro Cinema displayed more sense, as well as a more substantive taste in drama, than their Mexican brethren. Gemelos (Twins) was adapted from The Notebook, a work by the Hungarian-born Swiss novelist Agota Krystof, who writes in French. Krystof’s literary reputation in Europe is high; her unfamiliarity to Anglophone readers probably comes from the unlucky similarity of her name to Agatha Christie’s. At least as seen through this adaptation, The Notebook comes off as a work of considerable power, presenting human cruelty, degradation, and ugliness in a way that confirms human compassion and even an inherent nobility of spirit. A tale of personal horrors set against the greater horrors of World War II, it probably resonates strongly in a country that still carries the trauma of Pinochet’s rule (perpetrated and funded, please remember, by our generous CIA).

Krystof’s heroes are identical twin boys, brought from the city by their mother for safekeeping with their grandmother, a mean-spirited eccentric, originally from further east in Europe, who lives in a hardscrabble rural village where most of her neighbors view her as either a nasty foreigner, a witch, or both. She brutalizes and exploits the boys, who nonetheless slowly mature to the point where they can dominate her; meantime, they evolve their own peculiarly warped code of justice, befriending figures like an equally outcast slow-witted girl (nicknamed “Harelip”) and a Jewish shoemaker about to flee. Their actions, like the grandmother’s, are seen as complex, born of pain and never morally pure. For greater distance, Teatro Cinema viewed the characters (all played by only three actors) as if through the wrong end of a telescope. The stage’s large center section was a big puppet stage, on which the live actors moved like giant, shambling marionettes; some events were shown as sequences of tableaux vivants, using a silent-film iris effect. The music and design, both first-rate, were also employed cannily to heighten the drama. If Gemelos had a fault, it was that the rigid formalism of the staging kept the power of the piece locked in, at a strict distance from its audience. The moral gravity of this choice may appeal to me more than the relentless audience-wooing of the other troupes’ low comedy, but I can’t help wondering if there isn’t some midpoint from which the theater can speak directly to audiences without shoving its need for laughs and applause in their faces. Or has life in our virtual world simply become too desperate for that?