Theater archives

High Art in a Low Land


AMSTERDAM — He ain’t in the Rijksmuseum, but Ivo van Hove is still something of a Dutch master. The ambitious artistic director of the Holland Festival, his goal is to showcase the current Golden Age of avant-garde theater directing.

Strained metaphors aside, a sampling of the Holland Festival proved invigorating after a season of reduced expectations in New York. Watching visionary directors given free rein was exciting, even when some productions weren’t ultimately successful. Some great work, some guilty pleasures, and one play of genius.

Van Hove himself directed Susan Sontag’s Alice in Bed. The 1993 play is, in Sontag’s words, “a free fantasy based on a real person,” that being Alice James, sister of Henry and William James, a neurasthenic and invalid. Feeling lost in the shadow of her powerful brothers, Alice refuses to get out of bed. Through encounters with her father, Henry, and an Alice in Wonderland tea party featuring Margaret Fuller and Emily Dickinson, she grapples with her existential dilemma. Van Hove pushes Sontag’s dream play by having most of the characters appear as video images projected on scrims. Jan Versweyveld’s set consists of small objects (mirrors, numbers) attached to wires, slowly rising and falling. The result is an elegant, floating mindscape. Best of all is Joan MacIntosh’s arresting performance as Alice. The production will be presented this fall at New York Theater Workshop, happily continuing its collaboration with van Hove.

New York has already seen Richard Maxwell’s Showy Lady Slipper, imported for the festival. Nominally about a friendship between three women, the show really concerns language, using Maxwell’s flattening style. The play’s grown richer since its P.S.122 run last fall—it’s funnier and even moving. The audience responded well to it; the Dutch speak English excellently, but it was remarkable to watch them track a play that’s so much about inflection. (The Dutch are no dummies about the marginality of their mother tongue—hence the English proficiency, helpful, among other things, for watching Jerry Springer on TV.)

Judith is Theatergroep Hollandia’s version of the biblical Judith story. Johan Simons and Paul Koek directed Friedrich Hebbel’s 1839 script, mounting it in a cavernous building at the Westergasfabriek, a 19th-century factory complex now housing theaters, a cinema, and pubs—it’s the kind of facility New York sorely lacks. Judith, though not well acted, was still a grand gesture. In a playing area 60 feet wide and 100 feet deep, the Old Testament beheading is played out atop innumerable huge bundles of white paper. While the story might have been better told using simpler means, the massiveness of the production was close to awe-inspiring.

Rainald Goetz’s play was titled Jeff Koons. A play about Jeff Koons! What better reason to fly to Holland? The piece, untranslated, was hard to pin down precisely, though Goetz was clearly using the seminal puppy sculptor to moralize about art. Director Theu Boermans and designer Bernhard Hammer turned the De Trust theater into a giant, white-tiled bathhouse, the audience sitting on chairless steps. A blind writer mentors a young artist, whose life evolves into Koons’s, with a nightclubbing chorus and, of course, Cicciolina and a large projection of her puckered asshole. Pieces of text are video-projected, sometimes the words for an entire scene. The production looked great, but I sensed it missed the essence of Koons’s best work—the giddy nausea of its heightened banality.

Based on Iain Banks’s novel The Wasp Factory, De Wespenfabriek was created by director Guy Cassiers and writer Gerardjan Rijnders. A research scientist and his bitter son live on an isolated island. The son, we learn, has murdered three children. The play shifts between dealings with his father, phone calls from a deranged friend, and graphic descriptions of the killings. It’s a powerful, nightmarish piece, though with a weak punch line: The son was born female and has gone mad because his father has fed him hormones to raise him male. A white kitchen set is the backdrop for warped video projections. In one instance, an actor appears three times—onstage, as projected video, and as his shadow playing against his video image. Vocal samples are caught live, then looped back under a character’s dialogue. The cumulative effect was quite stunning.

Video also figured movingly at the end of Stefan’s Pucher’s Der Kirschgarten, the 35-year-old German’s loose take on The Cherry Orchard. While Firs sits reading on one side, the characters all exit the bare set through doors in the back wall. They then reenter as video projections against the same wall—fuzzy, ghostly versions of themselves. It’s a haunting moment, capturing both memory and loss. No translation of the production was provided, but I sensed, based on sections spoken in English, that the script didn’t rise to the level of Pucher’s concluding coup de théâtre.

But what does language matter anyway? I didn’t understand a word of Mil quinientos metros sobre el nivel de Jack, but that didn’t stop it from being the finest play I’ve seen in years. Written and directed by 25-year-old Argentine Federico León, the piece takes place entirely in a bathroom. Gaston and his mother live in the bathroom, with Gaston’s girlfriend and her son. They wear wet suits, spend lots of time in the water-filled tub, and deal with a broken TV that threatens to electrocute them all. Gaston is haunted by his missing father, the girlfriend’s son by his missing father. Over the course of this quiet, absurdist piece, Gaston and the boy slowly bond, Gaston becoming a surrogate father to the child. The production is riveting and wonderfully understated. It will be at Edinburgh this summer, Montreal next spring, and alone was worth the flight from New Amsterdam to the old one.

P.S.: Jan Steen kicks Vermeer’s ass.