Saturday, April 12, 2014

Double Dutch at ArtsEmerson

Yannick Greweldinger and Silke Hundertmark in Lebensraum (Habitat).

Lebensraum (Habitat), at ArtsEmerson through this weekend only, manages the curious trick of simultaneously seeming strange and familiar.  Its creator, Jakop Ahlbom, has been a leading light of the Dutch theatre scene for some time (even though he's Swedish), and has become known for a unique mode of performance drawn from mime, acrobatics, and stage magic (but little spoken text). Here he claims to have been inspired by a minor Buster Keaton classic, The Scarecrow, but it turns out this has only supplied the inspiration for his set and opening scene - a long, brilliantly orchestrated schtick built on the Rube-Goldberg-like "conveniences" that make single-room living possible. In Keaton, for instance, a record player must double as a griddle - here a day-bed flips up into a piano, etc., etc.

But in fact there are doubles everywhere. Ahlbom has split Keaton into two personae - one a bit sensitive (Yannick Greweldinger), the other more autocratic (Reinier Schimmel).  And there are two doors, as well as two windows - which open onto a jet-black void, and so double as mirrors or screens. And we note the lebensraum, or "living room," that these two inhabit comes equipped with two musicians (the Dutch duo Alamo Racetrack, below), whose psychedelic, wallpaper-like-suits make them seem to emanate right out of the set, like a soundtrack personified (and, btw, amplified).

The members of Alamo Racetrack.

The whole set-up makes explicit what was only implicit in Keaton's original - that we're inside a kind of divided masculine mind, which is itself curiously alienated from the surroundings it's driven to manipulate (tellingly, there's only one toilet for these two, but it's out in the open - a bald reminder that they're a little too anal).  At any rate, Ahlbom soon abandons Keaton for a new scenario, stitched together from Frankenstein, Tales of Hoffmann, Metropolis, and maybe The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, that mixes slapstick, surrealism, and sleep-walking in about equal measure.

For this pale, precise duo have taken their yen for automation to the next level by building an actual robot - and a female one at that (the petite Silke Hundertmark). This perky automaton is of course utterly vulnerable to their every clinical whim - in one weird scene, they shove her breasts aside to do a variant on the old surgery-and-sausages routine (while she just grins). Yet she's also strangely unstoppable as she wreaks havoc on her two creators, and wrests from them control over their own lives. Indeed, she eventually precipitates a kind of full-bore psychological crisis, which is only resolved when one of the Keatons leaps right through the walls of his own personality - and seemingly through a member  of Alamo Racetrack - to conjure a new, more natural habitat for himself and his pretty companion.

As you may have guessed by now, although Ahlbom's staging is brilliantly ingenious, you could argue he doesn't actually have too much new to say in Lebensraum; its Euro-kink touches, and general aura of surreal fetish (unless you're from Cambridge, you may not want to bring the kids) feel fresher than its recycled plot. Even Alamo Racetrack, talented as they are, feel a bit too much like David Byrne gone double Dutch.  

What's more striking is the sheer precision of all the non-stop comic action (see the hijinks above if you doubt me), which is not only remarkably fluid but also strangely stiff, as if everyone were sleep-walking through a mutual dream. Greweldinger and Schimmel prove fearlessly po-faced acrobats, and Hundertmark is even more extraordinary. With fascinating subtlety she invests her rigid Olympia with a dawning sense of self-awareness, even while mutely enduring all manner of violence and violation; indeed, her placid, painted-on smile ultimately seems unnerving: through microscopic motions too tiny to track, Hundertmark's expression inches from eager innocence to vengeful experience. She alone is reason enough to catch this intriguing Dutch treat before it leaves town.

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