Before attending Sunken Red, at BAM’s Next Wave Festival, I’d considered downing a Xanax or a substantial quality of gin—some prophylactic measure to arm myself against a uniquely depressing evening. This elaborately staged solo performance—a collaboration between Belgium’s Toneelhuis Theater, the Netherlands’ ro Theater, director Guy Cassiers, and actor Dirk Roofthooft—is adapted from Jeroen Brouwers’s 1981 autobiographical novel of the same name. The book and play concern young Brouwers’s internment in a Japanese camp in Jakarta during World War II. He watches his grandmother die, his sister sicken, and his mother viciously beaten. His time in the camp destroys his relationship with his mother and poisons his adult entanglements. “Well,” I thought, trying to cheer myself up, “at least it isn’t about the Holocaust.”
I needn’t have fretted. Somewhat to its detriment, Sunken Red doesn’t unduly distress audience members: Roofthooft offers a vision of a man so tremendously self-involved that he doesn’t bother upsetting anyone. The piece begins as Roofthooft uses files to slough away at the calluses on his feet—a slightly more active form of navel-gazing. Even when Roofthooft rises, lifts his gaze, and speaks, he reveals a man plagued by self-absorption, unable to release himself from past trauma. He begins his account in 1981, when he receives word of his aged mother’s death. She died alone, a bite of cheese sandwich suspended in her mouth. This news draws him back to 1945, where, at the age of five, he first felt an estrangement from her. In the camp, watching her lie naked and bloodied on the ground, he remembers thinking: “Now I want another mother—this one is broken.”
In a review of Brouwers’s novel, The New York Times described the book as “cathartic,” saying: “We watch Mr. Brouwers emerge from the walking dead.” But the performance offers no such narrative arc or catharsis. Roofthooft’s Brouwers remains disdainfully half-alive, describing himself as “so hard . . . so bitter . . . so unfeeling.” Silhouettes and live video double and triple Roofthooft’s presence on the stage, offering his petulant baby face in agonizing close-ups. But the man he plays always keeps his distance.