Does Chaos Make Good Theater?

July 19, 2008

I saw two pieces that embraced chaos at the Lincoln Center Festival this week: William Forsythe’s Impressing the Czar (1988), and the Gate Theatre’s I’ll Go On, a one-man play based on Beckett’s writings. Both began in a no man’s land of chaos, and ended in a hurricane of focused energy. I will remember the galvanized feeling that each gave me at the end. But I don’t know if either piece would have had the strong impact without their powerful, less chaotic endings.

    The opening salvo of Impressing the Czar, performed by the Royal Ballet of Flanders, filled the wide expanse of the stage at the Rose Theater with performance-art type actions, scraps of speech, and chunks of pure Fosythian dance. The props included a bow and arrows, a pitchfork, a giant pair of scissors, a birdcage head, a throne or two, and many little tin-man funnel caps. A royal complainer named Agnes (Helen Pickett) kept talking about a Mr. Pnut. The pure dance sections, whether performed in baroque taffeta gowns or leotard and tights, were—no surprise—terrific. Actions ricocheted back and forth between one century and another, and between Beethoven and what sounded like a kazoo version of Beethoven (when the sound wasn’t just general cataclysmic thunder claps). This whole section, called “Potemkin’s Unterschrift,” was basically precisely timed pandemonium.

    In the middle was In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, a masterpiece of edgy ballet, something the dancers could sink their teeth in.

    The third section, subtitled “La Maison de Mezzo-Prezzo,” was a spoof of an auction led off by Helen Pickett. The most amazing item was a box on the table with a human head in it, jabbering whenever the door to the box opened—just like the dormouse in the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

    The last section, however, riveted the eye. About 36 women and men in school-girl uniforms circled around the prone Mr. Pnut with mad chassés, breaking the circle with solo material, all with a tribal energy. Choreographically it was more coherent than the first or third sections; it got one’s kinetic and intellectual juices going.

    Similarly, the first two sections of I’ll Go On, performed by Barry McGovern, were hard to read—though spiked with moments of delightful humor—while the last section whipped us into attention. Beckett is famously ambiguous and ambivalent, which came across in the text (drawn from his novels Malloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable). Is this man homeless? Institutionalized? Is the mother whom he plans to visit still alive? Did the woman whose dog he accidentally killed really chatter on like that?? Does he really like to suck stones??

    But when it came to the last section, McGovern, wearing one less garment with each section and now shirtless, delivered his monologue with such an acceleration of energy (and a defiance that only surfaced now) that he seemed to levitate. One saw how the voice started in the abdomen and rose up through him; one saw the virtuosity deployed to switch voices in the speed-of-light self-questioning. The meaning of the words scrambled into a blur while the body, the head, the eyes, took over. It was a dizzying display of verbal virtuosity that lifted me into an elegiac state.

One does remember the last three lines:

“You must go on.”

“I can’t go on.”

“I’ll go on.”

    In both cases, I enjoyed the tendency toward chaos—I find it realistic and provocative— for most of the show. But there’s a limit to what chaos can accomplish theatrically. It was the concluding segments, propelled by a suddenly furious energy, that elevated both pieces to a kind of secular spirituality. In the Forsythe it was the fervor of group contagion—a Dionysian element, if you will; in the Beckett, it was the fervor of a kind of existential bargaining with oneself.