Say Something, You Hideous Ghost! (Boca Handa Jedefrau)
The production group Jedefrau.org (Maria Cavina and Kristýna Kalivodová) was set up in 2007 and currently manages two major flagships of Czech alternative theatre: Boca Loca Lab and Handa Gote Research & Development. A fondness for foreign idioms is evident here – the German Every Woman is the producer of the Spanish Crazy Mouth and the Japanese Soldering Iron. Moreover, both theatre groups advertise in their titles a kind of scientific approach – meaning laboratory, research and development. Scientism may also be one of the reasons one does not see these groups perform their pieces very often. The results they come up with are mutually related by their difference… roughly speaking, like two of the elements, fire and water.
■ The director Jiří Adámek´s Boca Loca Lab cultivates the so-called théâtre musical. Adámek´s productions, starting with the introductory Tiká tiká politika (Ticks ticks politics) from 2006, have been picking up prizes abroad even though they haven’t become mainstream at home, not even among theatre critics. They are weird. They usually don’t tell decipherable stories, nor do they portray traditional characters. Actors frequently just stand on stage and keep talking – often incomprehensibly – to the audience. The stage perfection of the production is also something removed from the Czech experience. No warmth, no cordiality. In a TV interview, Jiří Adámek pointed out that this approach is deliberate, explaining that he wants to “achieve emotions through structures”. The director referred to the “mathematician” Johann Sebastian Bach, who is supposed to be performed accurately and not with a romantic emotion.
In his last production to this day, entitled Řekni něco (Say something), Adámek anti-romantically and with exportable accuracy uses his lab approach in order to look under the surface of relationships – love relationships, to be precise. The need either to be close to one another, or to mark out one´s boundaries. Voice plays a crucial role here, even though words as such disappear, being substituted by “insignificant” sounds. It is supposed to be – as the director claims on the group´s website – “speech and voice, through which instincts and desires are manifested, not intellectual notions.” As a scientist, Adámek found inspiration in the modern theory of the origins of human speech - which apparently didn’t arise from the need to communicate during hunting or defense but “originated long ago because of human relationships becoming ever more complicated”. As an artist, he was inspired by “observing café guests and Prague tram goers, as well as by the recordings of songs and rituals of the indigenous people of Africa, Asia, South America or those of the native Americans”.
The cafés also inspired the basic stage design and arrangement. To the left of the audience, in front of the back wall, we see three café tables. Two pairs sit at two of them (Petr Vančura and Vendula Holičková/ and Pavol Smolárik and Barbora Mišíková), while the other two protagonists sit alone. A man (Daniel Šváb) sits alone at the last table, with his back to the others, a woman (Petra Lustigová) sits on the opposite end, facing the back of the man (Vančura). On the right side, closer to the audience, a big golden sphere is sticking out into space. It’s probably there so we don’t get stuck in descriptive realism. Though motionless, it’s permanently threatened by an imminent clash with reality.
However, the danger of being descriptive is chiefly eliminated by the vagueness of the performed situations, the ambiguity of the relationships and, above all, the nonverbal speech. The production begins with the murmur of a supposed téte-á-téte conversation, though Šváb talks to an invisible partner. Lustigová tries to take part in the conversation as well, sometimes she even shouts, very inappropriately and without any response from anybody. Slowly, the pairs start to reshuffle and move – with their tables – to other parts of the stage, their voices ceasing to be just a murmur and developing a distinctive character.
For example, the delicate girl (Holičková) lets out twittering noises like a bird (contrasted by the screeching of the table on the floor). At other times, the artificial speech may actually resemble a specific language. To me, it resembled the flirty Hungarian (Mišíková), the combative, angry Japanese (Smolárik), or some guttural, erotic African dialect (Šváb). /
Even when voices indicate emotions (fondness, jealousy, animosity…,) only rarely do we see some concrete activity between the characters. When we do, it is always the woman who sparks off the action. Lustigová crawls under the table to the sheepish Smolárik, raises her head to his crotch and then crawls away under his chair. Mišíková pulls from her purse some emotional souvenirs of her life – stones, shells, sticks – and offers them to the rest of the cast. Holičková wants to move with her chair and table closer to Šváb, who is sitting, showing no sign of interest, near the back wall. She is hindered by the handbag over her shoulder, as well as by the cup and saucer she balances on a tray. Nevertheless, she insists on carrying everything at once – even the chair with a seat that keeps falling off and the table which is also made up of two separate pieces. In a slow clownery which resembles butó theatre in its tempo and new circus in its humor, she weaves her body into the chair, the tray in one hand, the table and both the falling parts in the other, and in this way she reaches her goal. The man isn’t moved one bit. I guess it isn’t by chance that the whole production ends with the breaking of the cup and saucer.
Should we assign the porcelain with some symbolic dimension, the ending would seem a sort of feminist catastrophe. I don´t know whether it was the director´s intention or whether the production developed in this way naturally. In any case, it seems that nothing could have helped the woman in the end - neither the elegance and photogenic poses nor the design of her costume with feathers sewed into the seam of her dress.
If the fashionable, “girlie” aesthetics are the characteristic feature of the whole visual aspect of the production design, then so is its gentle, feminine approach to the dance movement. Not that we are talking real dancing here, but there is a similarity in the inclination to abstraction and basic relationships as well as the sound range, which resembles the ABCs of modern dance. Voices are structured according to music rules (bars, tempos), and the actors “sing” solos as well as duets or choirs in various constellations, and of course a male versus female choir. At one moment, they sing in unison, next they move to polyphony, sometimes with a hint of melody, to eventually meet in a chord which comes right after the breaking up of the “female” porcelain. And I am not sure: Is this a comedy? Is it a tragedy?
In this double question, I deliberately quote the title of a book by Thomas Bernhard. In drama and art, as well as in the philosophy of life, we can observe the development from pure genres of tragedy and comedy towards their combination, where the tragic grandeur is belittled, pathos disappears attacked by ridiculousness, and beauty and nobility become grotesque caricatures. “If amazement, admiration and a sort of trembling in the face of the absolute are at the core of a sublime experience, then humour is the means to escape this paralysis and to resist the imploring earthliness, even though ultimately, it cannot be escaped.” I am quoting Miroslav Petříček from the epilogue of his translation of Thomas Bernhard´s Walking (Gehen). The plot and the only real drama of Bernhard´s prose is made up of a dispute with a tailor, who according to Karrer, the main character, does not sew trousers from top-quality English fabric but only from “the second class Czechoslovakian stuff”. In the end, Karrer goes mad: a pathetic dispute ends in a ridiculous tragedy. Beginning with, let´s say, Chekhov, the theatre presents us with life as a series of banal and ridiculous tragedies. Banalities have grown in number since Chekhov´s times. Lives are being depleted first of their uniqueness and then of their very narrative. Although in Say something Jiří Adámek wants us to find our own stories by the means of association, the predictors he offers are either too poor, or there is – apart from banalities - nothing to associate with in the first place. We are left with an atmosphere, a mixture of emotions and the comicality of the whole milling around.
If I had the feeling that the café in which the production takes place offers no escape, then it occurred to me later on that our living space has also grown smaller and become an enclosed territory: not terra anymore, not a land spreading in all directions, infinitely open, but a terrarium.
■ In the Say something program, Jiří Adámek infers that even in our individualistic era we are “essentially dependent on human community without which we are unable to grow properly, cannot survive, and the loss of which would lead to an insurmountable nostalgia.” In contrast, William Burroughs, author of a text called Ghost of Chance, translated into Czech as Hideous Ghost, is not an optimist at all. He depicts a world at the stage of an utmost nostalgic depression. The Czech translation is misleading, as the original could also be translated as There’s almost no hope left. And who is to be blamed for this almost hopeless state of affairs? It is people, or as Burroughs would say, the disgusting animals.
The Handa Gote team used Burroughs´s prose as the basis for their production called Mission, which is the name of the main character, the captain of a pirate settlement Libertatia in Madagascar. Handa Gote don’t comment on Burroughs´s opinions which are in places unbearable for someone allergic to the loud-mouthed environmentalism. They probably agree with his ideas, yet they distance themselves from them. If we leave aside the pompous phrases from the program, the production is neither bombastic nor megalomaniac or depressive. It’s more cheerful than Adámek´s Say something. Perhaps this feeling is to a large extent due to the smeared warmth of the handmade character of the production, which stands in contrast to Adámek´s cool perfection.
Handa Gote takes over from Burroughs the vision of a man dangerous both to nature and to himself, as well as the adventurous novel style of narrative. They leave out the anti-utopian theses and harmful messianism as well as other pandemic infections, the enumeration and symptoms of which take up more than half of the prose: blasphemy, represented by the description of people attacked by “Christ´s disease”, is probably not of interest to the group, and neither are the other brutal illnesses (such as the excessive growth of hair and organs, including the genitals, or the Thinking Disease called Egghead, which kills intelligence in Burroughs´s prose). / However, they remain true to the author in what could be described as unrestrained poetics: with a feeling for nostalgia, yet very amusingly, they combine quotations from the text with a live animated film as well as puppet, dance and music numbers. All of this while using and adapting to their needs the cut-up method which Burroughs had taken over from his friend Brion Gysin.
Gysin even appears as a character. Tomáš Procházka enters with a little chalkboard around his neck with Gysin´s name on it. He is wearing a pink, hairy cap with rabbit ears. This is a reference to Gysin´s actual self-portrait in a pink earflap cap, which we really don’t need to know and may as well conclude that Gysin is probably dressed as a lemur. Similarly, a cylinder with cutouts and a lit bulb glimmering through the holes which appears at the end of the production can be interpreted by the spectator in whatever way he wishes - no need to recognize in it the Dreammachine, Gysin´s “machine” for hallucinogenic states of mind. Likewise, only some will recognize the song performed in German to be Das klinget so herrlich from Mozart´s The Magic Flute; and the reason it is played here is understood – I would say unfortunately so – only by the most ingenious specialists - conspirators).
I would recommend to the audience not to try to decipher anything, rather to perceive what they see very freely and without any obligation. Only in this way is it possible to accept the rules of the game – or research, if you wish – which Handa Gote, in their own words, carry out in the field of narration - deconstructing traditional storytelling, revealing theatrical illusion and reducing mimesis. They capture fragments of a narrative – or rather fragments of fragments which Burroughs has left us – about a pirate captain who discovered a collapsed temple, Museum Of Disappeared Species, on an island inhabited by lemurs. Even though he declared the killing of a lemur the most severe crime, he was not able to prevent murder and the destruction of this paradise. What we see unfold looks like an animated film about life in Madagascar being shot live in our presence. We see a table with pictures which are filmed by the camera, and various, mostly two dimensional, paper puppets, placed at various distances from the camera). For example, we watch actors slot a picture of the jungle into a groove on the animation table, then a lemur in the groove in front of it, we see how they animate the movement of its tail, how they colour the scene with a colored filter and how they create mist from cigarette smoke, how they focus the camera on a chosen detail. At the same time we see the same scene on the projecting screen as a special effect shot.
Occasionally, more complex puppets appear, for example a beautiful marionette of a small deer without antlers, Burroughs´s “deer lemur”, or a soft-toy lemur with a flat face drawn on a piece of paper and a blue, white and pink striped tail, which plays the main role in the dramatic finale of the production.
While two of the actors (Tomáš Procházka and Robert Smolík) animate the crawling of the lemur along a branch, the third one (Jan Dörner) enters with a pirate hat and a „mask“ of fat lips, in between which something white protrudes – hopefully teeth). On his chest he wears a small chalkboard with the phrase “Martin, a mean person”. He points his gun, a prop made out of a crooked stick. The explosion is in the hands of Veronika Švábová who pops an inflated paper bag, probably a flour one since it even “smokes” a little. She then crumples the paper and slowly walks with the paper ball towards the lemur. Halfway she interrupts her “flight” with an expressive dance movement. This cultural intermezzo is performed with a poker face, the actress dressed in a two-piece suit and with a 1960s hairstyle. The paper ammunition finally reaches its goal and the hit lemur falls down – or to be precise, his animators drop him (with the branch) to the ground. The killed lemur ends up in a bag, covered up with lime.
This scene, typical in its structure and atypically easy to interpret, represents one of many numbers in a chain of not always comprehensible, yet always amusing spectacles. For example: An animated big fish swallows a small fish. Three characters with paper masks wear little chalkboards on their chests, on which they draw or write their faces and names in the form of a sign. The decadent, fringe music hall artist (Dörner) exercises a lemur (Veronika Švábová) who’s wearing silon overalls and the same striped tail as the one sported by the puppet earlier or. Three towels are hanging from the pulleys - two with the euro and dollar bill motives printed on them, the third one with the picture of a tiger. We hear the fast-played Caballo Negro record while Procházka plays three joined vuvuzelas live. A man in a white gorilla mask attempts to play the guitar with the gorilla´s giant paws but it only makes noise. Veronika Švábová, still in the role of the lemur, sings an English text borrowed from P.J. Harvey (Who will love me now) to Procházka´s own music: it speaks of a monster hiding in the woods and there is a question posed: who is going to give me back my life? And last but not least there is a scene demonstrating the cut-up technique. Procházka wants to read the encyclopedic information on Madagascar but Smolík takes the paper, folds it and uses scissors to cut out a paper napkin. Procházka then reads what is left on the paper: fractions.
The lead to understand this method can be found in Burroughs´s text, when he speaks about the gap between the brain hemispheres which precludes synthesis, the parallel of which is the rift dividing Madagascar from mainland Africa. On one side of this rift lies innocence, on the other wars, weapons and slavery. The story in this production – just as in Say something – is the production itself. Here, we are also dealing with an enclosed world. However, it is no longer a terrarium but a playground where Handa Gote applies what it’s been preaching: its affiliation with the DIY movement. In a children´s playground, innocence can be restored.
Say Something, script and directed by Jiří Adámek, dramaturgy Martina Musilová, costumes Ivana Kanhäuserová, stage design Darina Giljanovič, physical training Zuzana Sýkorová, lighting design Marek Střížovský, produced by Jedefrau.org, Boca Loca Lab, premiere October 26, 2013 at theatre Alfred ve dvoře
Mission, Theatre cut-up based on the novella by William S. Burroughs, Ghost of Chance, put together by Jan Dörner, Jakub Hybler, Tomáš Procházka, Robert Smolík and Veronika Švábová, produced by Jedefrau.org, Handa Gote research & development, premiere December 7, 2013 at theatre Alfred ve dvoře
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 2, volume 2014
translated by Ester Žantovská
) Originally, this role was played by Dora Bouzková.
) Jiří Adámek in a radio interview explained some of the noises: „čččč" is a catlike, twittering noise, „rrrf expresses anger, „gggg" evokes stammering.
) Burroughs describes the new diseases with moralist shamelesness. This might explain why the creators of this absolutely chaste production have left them out.
) I am quoting the explanation by Veronika Švábová: „We used the song because Mozart was supposed to be a Mason. And Burroughs calls the characters, responsible for the destruction of this colony, Jewish Masons.“ I hope this explains the mystery.
) The animation table is at the right front from the spectator´s view. Diagonally from the table is a mixing console, where Procházka creates live sounds and music. At the center is the stage, with a projecting screen at the back, next to which hangs a map of Africa.
) The seekers of mysterious associations could be enticed by the fact that the mask comes from the Haiti carnival. But finding out why exactly from the Haiti carnival is up to each seeker himself.