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TONEELGROEP AMSTERDAM STAGES “CRIES AND WHISPERS” AND “DISGRACE”

One of my biggest complaints about Broadway theater is the lack of artistic risk. (Indeed, one could make the case that Julie Taymor’s cursed production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark had the media riveted more by its performers’ injuries than by its Hollywood blockbuster budget. The safe Great White Way had become dangerous again!) Which is why it’s been like a breath of fresh air to take in several English-surtitled productions from Toneelgroep Amsterdam (headquartered a very easy hour’s train ride away from the International Film Festival Rotterdam), where in lieu of bodily harm to actors there’s a couple of Belgian directors willing to challenge not just an audience but themselves as well.

Both the company’s artistic director Ivo van Hove and Thalia Theater Hamburg’s Luk Perceval have each decided to tackle intensely philosophical works, pieces laden with heavy artistic baggage outside the cloistered theater world. By staging versions of Ingmar Bergman’s critically acclaimed 1972 breakthrough Cries and Whispers (which had a brief run at BAM’s Next Wave Festival back in October) and Nobel Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, respectively, these Belgians are out to beat the odds, choosing to tread territory where the chances of failure are certainly higher than that of success. And both pull their productions through with respectful inventiveness.

Like the novel it’s adapted from, about a white professor’s morally complicated journey through sex and race relations in post-apartheid South Africa, Perceval’s Disgrace is bleak as hell. From the opening, in which we see the vain and self-entitled David Lurie seated onstage surrounded by black mannequins mingling in a frozen tableau – then watch as he’s grilled on his relationship with a student by two actresses positioned in the audience – Perceval has announced his intention to make the ever-present tension of Coetzee’s homeland visual. Often utilizing a third person narration the character of Lurie recounts his downfall and the horrifying – though sensationally staged – violent act at his daughter’s farm on the Eastern Cape that shakes his entire belief system. Usually relying on the device of mere storytelling with very little action doesn’t work in plays, but Coetzee’s words are so powerful and riveting (It is “shame that makes us human beings,” a character theorizes) that Perceval’s simply stepping out of the way and letting them set our imaginations on fire, as if we were actually reading a condensed version of the book in those surtitles, is a feat of minimalistic ingenuity. The actors – especially Gijs Scholten van Aschat who delivers a convincing portrayal of Lurie as a man accustomed to steamrolling to get what he wants, including sex – and production design are there to simply serve the story, not comment on it or to even illustrate.

Conversely, Ivo van Hove takes a quite different approach, choosing to stage Cries and Whispers as something closer to a Whitney Biennial artwork (or a Warhol experiment – complete with 60s era nudity). The action actually takes place in two mediums, live and on video, as the actors navigate an onstage camera, those images then projected onto a white screen. The noise of a thunderstorm vibrates the floor. An actor releases an overhead boom mike, causing it to swing like a pendulum and sound like a heartbeat. In van Hove’s hands Bergman’s painful tale of three sisters, all forced to confront their own inner selves as they await the imminent death of one, becomes a multisensory experience. (Indeed, Agnes’s death scene, as she covers herself in blue paint, writhes about on a canvas – which we witness on the screen – echoes Michael Grandage’s Red only with deafening rock music.) But overall the production is smartly slow-paced and infused with a sense of stillness, which is an uncharacteristic rhythm for this director, who usually favors movement at all costs. Though the ensemble cast is up to the task it’s the production design that’s the star this time – with van Hove muse Halina Reijn naturally relegated to the Liv Ullmann role.

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