They're baaaack. With the just-opened Beethoven 'N' Pierrot, Czech director Pavel Dobrusky and Norwegian counterpart Per-Olav Sorensen have once again brought "process theater" to the Denver Center Theatre Company. The first of their offbeat pieces--Stories, based on Isabel Allende's novel The Stories of Eva Luna--was a delightful, technically brilliant bit of magic realism, odd enough to disconcert, but not odd enough to give viewers fits. A year later, though, Dobrusky launched the controversial Star Fever, based on Euripides's Bacchae--and this time, many audience members freaked.
Star Fever was as outrageous a theater piece as Denver has ever seen. It ridiculed America's penchant for celebrity worship and borrowed the quick editing techniques of the movies to lambaste television--especially talk shows. Its main character, a scheming judge, donned a pink chiffon gown, did a tragic (and ludicrous) ballet and was subsequently torn apart by his own mother and other crazed women (just as in Bacchae). Most shocking of all, at the end of the play, a child picked up a gun to kill someone as the shortest road to celebrity. At the time, Jeffrey Dahmer was fresh in the public's memory and O.J. Simpson was on trial for murder. But the severed-head toss on stage was still too barbarous for many.
Real life is creepy enough without having to see it in the theater, some audience members complained in letters to the DCTC--after all, a lot of people go to the theater to be entertained, not enlightened. And Sorensen and Dobrusky's work has led to a continuing debate on the local scene about whether such horrific images can do anything but inure the audience further to violence.
On the other hand, all the appalling data we get about "real life" can be difficult to process or hold in any kind of perspective--and perhaps that's where "process theater" comes in. Dobrusky's cutting-edge work in Star Fever may have parodied TV, but it also held a mirror up to the nightmarish nature of American self-indulgence and escapism. It was not a pretty picture, but it was exciting because it was so raw, so inventive and so fully realized. There was method at every turn in all the madness of that wild and woolly production, which shattered preconceptions and startled sensitive audience members. It communicated in metaphors--and Americans, as Dobrusky points out, are not very good at thinking in metaphors.
Dobrusky, who splits his time between Denver and the European theater scene, likes to quote the Russian author and playwright Nikolay Gogol, who said, "Don't blame the mirror if your own face is crooked." A voracious reader and avid news junkie, Dobrusky hates TV but says he sees enough of it to know what's being dumped into the public consciousness. When he and Sorensen work together, they create a loose script (with Beethoven, they started with 135 pages of scenes and dialogue). They choose their cast carefully, then load down the actors with lists of things to read on the subject at hand. All this is standard enough. But the difference between process theater and the more ordinary variety lies in the contribution of the actors and in the relationship between the directors and the actors. Rehearsals, in particular, are a whole other kettle of fish.
The actors start with a script, but they don't end with the same one. Dobrusky tape records the rehearsals; the actors improvise, work with the dialogue and change it as the scene develops. When a scene is just right, the dialogue is transcribed and the scene is "set." There is no real story, but there is always a point. Dobrusky and Sorensen's plays are not grounded in realism, but they do reflect very real conflicts in individuals and in society.
One of the elements that most invigorates the actors, says Anthony Powell, who plays Beethoven in the current production, is the actors' sense of "ownership" of the piece. Great images (like flowers suddenly blooming on stage in Stories) can stem from an offhand comment. The new DCTC production has likewise been formed by the talents and sensibilities of Powell and the other Denver actors; were the directors to pack up the original 135-page script and take it to New York, audiences there would see a different play.
DCTC artistic director Donovan Marley adds that nothing invigorates the technical staff quite as much as the demands of these process-theater pieces. Terrific technical demands are made and need to be solved--sometimes in a matter of a few hours.
Sorensen, who has also directed at the National Theater of Norway, objects to the word "experimental" to describe his work. "We have to try to tell the stories in a different way," he says. Even the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen bores Sorensen, who prefers to "tell the story faster." The pace is as swift as a rock video, passions turn on a dime, and conflicting images crowd in to keep the viewers' attention riveted to the stage.
Dobrusky is a "painter of big strokes," attracted to large themes that are sometimes political and sometimes not. While Star Fever was a strident political piece, Beethoven is about the nature of creative genius. "We are following what happened in Beethoven's life--how he behaved," says Dobrusky.
The great composer, adds Sorensen, "is a symbol of music and creativity." All the contradictions in Beethoven's life--how he could make magnificent music and still be such a jerk to people around him, for example--fascinated Dobrusky and Sorensen and triggered the conception of the piece.
"He is interesting to me because he created interesting things," says Dobrusky. "There was something coming out of him that was important. It was Wagner, I think, who compared him to Tiresias [the prophet in Oedipus Rex], who was blind but who saw the past, present and future. Others compare Beethoven to Prometheus [who disobeyed the gods and brought fire to mankind]."
Dobrusky points out that Beethoven broke then-dominant musical rules with regard to rhythm and also by introducing Friederich von Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy" into a symphony. Those sorts of discoveries have influenced every generation since. Today, says Dobrusky, we live in such a fragmented culture that "we don't have ideals--we don't even have many people who really honestly create." So a piece about Beethoven can speak to contemporary audiences--and to contemporary issues. "Nobody knows much about Beethoven," says Powell. "But we all know Beethoven. He's almost too big to play."
There are disturbing images in the show--not surprising, given that one of Dobrusky and Sorensen's key goals was to download images from the mind of a tortured genius. As a matter of fact, the whole play takes place in Beethoven's mind, rendering the ubiquitous question of how to deal with his deafness moot (unlike in the recent movie Immortal Beloved). Still, the isolation caused by his deafness does play a part. Powell points out that Beethoven's obsession with how God manifests himself in nature is the central motif of the play. The composer, he notes, "left the world more and more walking the eternal."
And despite their reputation for shock theater, Dobrusky and Sorensen say they mean to speak to the heart. The process form, they believe, is a natural articulation of what their thirtysomething generation sees, feels, understands and creates. While there is violence in their work, notes Sorensen, "we can never be as commercial as David Lynch or [Martin] Scor-sese. When we do it, we're not doing it for entertainment. If it's in there, it's in there for a reason."
Adds Dobrusky: "Be honest with yourself. I am not a psychiatrist planting false images about being molested by your father. If I touch something, it's there."
Beethoven lies near death on top of his piano. He raises a single finger in the air, turns painfully over on his side and strikes a key. The set explodes in sparks, his Ninth Symphony blasts out, making the audience jump, a score of small trap doors open, and wildly dressed dancers and actors emerge like magic. Beethoven 'N' Pierrot is off and running.
During one of the first performances last week, some viewers got up and left in the middle of the show. Some sat fuming. But most of the others appeared to be intrigued, stimulated, even delighted.
This two-hour, free-form investigation of Beethoven's creative genius by directors Pavel Dobrusky and Per-Olav Sorensen is dazzling and self-indulgent by turns. And it's definitely unsettling, because there are none of the comforting signposts of traditional theater to guide you through the piece: There's no plot, the characters all spring from the mind of one man and are therefore two-dimensional (all, that is, but Beethoven himself and an ingenious devil), and the dialogue sounds like it was plucked from contemporary America, not nineteenth-century Austria. You're set adrift, and whatever weird flotsam and jetsam you crash into hits hard.
There's also enough weirdness here--from the wild costumes to the stream-of-consciousness cataclysms--to take your breath away. Beethoven's ego is already out of bounds as the show opens; when the devil, Mephisto, enters disguised as a psychiatrist and asks to play a free-association game with words like "nature," "God" and "great," Beethoven answers "me." Mephisto (played with great finesse and infernal wit by Mark Boyett) returns in various guises throughout. Dressed in a shower cap and bathing suit and made up like a ten-dollar tart, he unsuccessfully tries to seduce the Maestro into his realm. He appears again as the composite doll-woman Beethoven thinks he loves, only to be unmasked again. He even appears as Beethoven's mentor, the Empress, and this time the composer does fall briefly for the devil. Mephisto, though, becomes increasingly comic and increasingly ludicrous. In the end, he is no longer awesome, just mediocre--not a power to be feared but an annoyance to be resisted.
As the action unfolds, Beethoven encounters the women he has loved, his dying mother, his pathetic little nephew (played by a marionette) who cries continually for his mama, and even his erstwhile hero Napoleon--an irritating little mosquito who arrives on a tank and demands that the audience clap along ("or I'll kill you") to a self-adulating rap song.
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One of the most magnetic forces of the whole evening lies in the character of Pierrot (played with almost inhuman grace by Bill Bowers). The father of mime, Pierrot (whose real name was Jean-Baptiste Gaspard Deburau) was a contemporary of Beethoven's. In perhaps the most inspired moment of the evening, he dances with a lame countess, making her "fly" in his arms like a bird. Madness precedes it and madness follows, but that one moment is a point of exquisite light, undergirded by the magnificent strains of Beethoven's music. In fact, apart from a few routines intended as parody, dance is a symbol of clarity and divine benevolence throughout the show.
Anthony Powell's interpretation of Beethoven is the soul of the production. As accomplished an actor as he is a director (Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, The Last Yankee), Powell's magnificently crafted craziness includes within it a profoundly realized spirituality--a felt, rather than explained, relation to Ultimate Meaning. Lumbering about the stage like a disgruntled bear, his head shaved, Powell's Beethoven argues hilariously with his demons and calls up the strains of his music in answer to life's worst horrors.
There are moments in the play that irritated me to loathing--I certainly understood why some people left angry. Toward the last twenty minutes, the show began to feel excessive even to me. But that's what the evening is partly about--the sharp contrasts in emotion the actors are able to elicit from the audience. The good news is, it's 98 percent ennui-free. And though it infuriates, it also exhilarates. The "Ode to Joy" never felt more relevant.