Theater archives

Two Plays Reveal the Evolution of Avant-Garde


The tumultuous 1960s, with its bacchanals and revolutions, adopted Euripides’ Bacchae as its main myth. In iconic stagings like the Performance Group’sDionysus in ’69 or the Living Theatre’s Paradise Now, theater unleashed the Dionysian spirit of that ancient play, celebrating intoxication, fleshly pleasures, and social liberation. The 21st century, on the other hand, has terror and destruction-from-within. Our tragedy is Medea. At its center lurks the defiant, stealthy foreigner—a witch who practices dark arts and excels at poison making. Medea destroys her children and future to exact violent revenge on a wealthy nation-state that humiliates and frustrates her: a disenfranchised and betrayed outsider.

This post-9/11 dimension comes to the fore of Dutch ensemble Dood Paard’s beautiful and sly medEia (presented briefly at P.S. 122), even though it was originally created in 1998. If you could get past the sing-song vocals of three Dutch actors reciting abstract text, there were huge rewards: medEia is one of the smartest, most disarming theater pieces I’ve seen in recent years. From the opening moments-—when bright white lights catch us in an alarming glare while the pure strains of Maria Callas carry us away in transcendent bliss—we have to look and listen in unusually intent ways. This sequence goes on for minutes, as the Dood Paard trio (Kuno Bakker, Manja Topper, and Oscar van Woensel) stand upstage gazing at ropes, wooden masts, and layers of fallen white canvas sails. “I am so sad/So many tears I wept today,” they whisper, speaking as the Chorus.

The three remain fixed in place during each of four scenes, but for each section move closer downstage. They breathlessly unravel Euripides’ tale, but completely without affect. In Van Woensel’s semi-linear text, the three actors share and alternate roles. They inhabit characters’ thoughts and words, but also speak from a remove-—as if they’re recalling something, or cautiously imagining the rage and struggle of dispossessed souls like Medea. “I was a woman in a country/far, far away from your world,” they whisper, “that world of money/And economics/And war/My country was different.”

Rather than just focusing on Medea herself, Dood Paard offers a gorgeous picture of the public’s futility in the face of injustice and suffering. “I can’t do anything but watch,” the Chorus laments, “I can not act/’Cause I’m no actor/I belong somewhere else.”

Three times they stop, race for a slide projector, and fire mortar rounds of images at the white sails. The photos are ordinary scenes from around the globe: houses, mountains, people, cities, sky. “I can hear all the thoughts/of all the people/All over the world,” they say. By showing us these collected snapshots of a wide, shared world, Dood Paard-—the name means “Dead Horse”—invites us into a collective search for reassurance. What can be done to keep suffering outsiders from turning to revenge? Like the Chorus, we leave struggling to find a voice and role.

According to Caravaggio Chiaroscuro, Gian Marco Lo Forte’s new biographical music-drama now at La MaMa, Caravaggio often painted in the grip of those Dionysian spirits—fueled by wine, song, and lust for his muse, Mario (Matt Nasser). The young genius-to-be (Duane Boutté) arrives in Rome penniless and naïve but soon wins fame, lighting up the town as well as his canvases. When rivals attack him for his sexuality and dark complexion, the outsider-artist lashes out, committing murder. Unfortunately, Lo Forte’s leaden libretto lurches back and forth into Italian, sometimes mid-sentence—a cloying device. And director George Drance finds surprisingly few visual pleasures for a piece about a revolutionary painter. The cast gallivants gaily in cardinal cloaks and peasant frocks, shouting and indicating in scenes underscored by violin, recorder, and acoustic guitar. It makes for one of those evenings at La MaMa when it feels like the 1960s never ended. But to me, at least, this kind of ensemble melodrama has dated and expired, like a discarded myth.