Theatre de Banlieue

at the Organic Lab Theater


Edgar Road Theatre Company

at Stage Left Theatre

There’s a strange coincidence currently playing on Clark Street just above Belmont. Playing on one side of the street is Aqui No Se Rinde, which, I’m informed, is also a Sandinista slogan that translates as “Here no one surrenders.” The play was inspired by street scenes witnessed by the Belgian troupe, Theatre de Banlieue, on their recent Latin American tour. On the other side of the street is How I Got That Story, an Obie-winning play about a reporter who sets out to cover the war in Vietnam and winds up going native. The two productions are unrelated, in the sense that they’ve been mounted by different theaters. But when you get down to the subject matter, and the afterglow of images burned into your memory, I tell you, this amounts to one living hell of a double feature.

If I hadn’t read the program notes to Aqui No Se Rinde, I confess I’d never have known what the play was about. Those Latin American street scenes, which apparently occurred nowhere in the vicinity of a Club Med, are translated into theater as visceral as it is abstract. The program calls it a “succession of “overlapping’ events–war, celebration, revolutionary action, seduction, delirium.” And I guess that’s as clear and concise a description as can be had. Because once your attention strays from the tangibility of the cheap, Xeroxed program, and you place your back against the wall for the actual performance, you find yourself slipping into a subjective world that can be felt, but never made explicit.

The play opens with a revolutionary-sounding folk song, sung offstage, counterpointed by the percussion of footfalls in a lub dub, heartbeat tempo. Then an actor enters, hunched under black cloth, carrying ten feet of gutter pipe with a huge gourd stuck in the front end. The shape looks vaguely like a long-necked bird or a brontosaurus, and it takes its time checking out the audience. Then another bird/reptile/whatever enters and the ruckus is on. After something that looks like a mating dance and a decapitation, the actors assume human roles that mutate and coalesce into a number of two-character scenes. Well, they’re human and not quite human. What dialogue there is–in Spanish, English, and mostly French–is mixed with grunting, screeching, trilling, and pure babble. Clearly, language is discarded here in favor of a more primal, physical communication.

For example, in one scene, Isabelle Lamouline plays a woman screaming incomprehensible shit at some unseen offender. Nearby is Alain Mebirouk; he appears to be some sort of street person having delirium tremens and is detached enough to be unaware of the woman’s problem. And suddenly I notice that her gestures and his spasms are so similar, and synchronous, that this is a dance–a dance of rage and delirium.

So be advised, this is serious avant-garde, and not the dilettante high jinks that you see so often around town. Theatre de Banlieue claims influence from Jerzy Grotowski, who, if you’re unfamiliar with the name, is the Polish theater artist who demanded such discipline, sacrifice, and commitment from his actors that he made acting synonymous with sadomasochism.

Consistent with Grotowski’s notion of a “poor theater,” Aqui No Se Rinde makes do with a couple of exceptional actors and some props fished out of a Dumpster. Lamouline and Mebirouk are the most physically adept and versatile performers I’ve seen in some time. And they get full use out of their props. The two sections of gutter pipe are used as a bird’s neck, a prosthetic leg, a weapon, crutches, and a percussion instrument, among other things. The pipe has sharp, ragged edges on it, which doesn’t stop Lamouline from sticking her leg into it right up to her crotch, and then, amazingly, lifting the ten-foot extension gracefully straight up to the ceiling. And all the time, Lamouline smiles blissfully and idiotically, like a crippled ballerina. That’s “poor theater” at its best, when it leaves you with a disturbing and insoluble image.

At its worst, Aqui No Se Rinde is abrasive and artistically self-serving. Some things don’t bother me, like simulated masturbation and the locker room smell of strenuous performance. But really loud screaming and having a gutter pipe stuck in my face get on my nerves, and at that point I don’t give a damn what your aesthetics are–you’re looking for a fistfight. As for being artistically self-serving, I would say that I learned less about Latin America than I did about Theatre de Banlieue. I won’t argue with this production’s ability to create some strong impressions of life during wartime. But the way I see it, Theatre de Banlieue has taken from Latin America its inspiration, yet has given back an abstraction so uniquely contorted that it draws attention primarily to itself, and not to the object of its inspiration.

I didn’t enjoy Aqui No Se Rinde when I saw it. My tastes aren’t so jaded and effete as to relish the sort of confrontational theater that relies on a passive audience. But I’m enjoying it more now that it’s over–like a humiliating experience that, in retrospect, never fails to give you a laugh. Or, as Antonin Artaud (Grotowski’s theatrical forefather) once said, “Everything which acts is a cruelty.”

In comparison, How I Got That Story is a far more conventional play. Yet it also makes do with two actors, and certainly no scenery worth mentioning. One actor (Randy McPherson) plays a reporter fresh from Dubuque covering the war in Ambo Land (a pseudonym for Vietnam). The second actor (Peter Rybolt) plays “The Historical Event,” which consists of 21 roles ranging from a foulmouthed American field lieutenant to an Ambonese nun. But the most striking similarity to Aqui No Se Rinde is the way How I Got That Story introduces the audience to scenes of war and madness through the eyes of an outsider, the reporter. And, fresh from my experience with the Theatre de Banlieue, I was relieved to get these reports not only in English, but from an ingenuous Iowan’s viewpoint.

Playwright Amlin Gray has structured his play into a series of short episodes, punctuated by narrative in which the reporter relates his firsthand impressions directly to the audience. So in each two-character scene, the audience sees both the “historical event” and its effect upon the reporter.

One of the most powerful scenes in the play comes on the reporter’s first day on the job. It starts off like a bad joke, when the reporter lends a match to a Buddhist monk, who proceeds to set himself on fire as the reporter watches helplessly. You may recall that this sort of protest was a common news item back in the 60s. I can even remember a bad joke that went, “What uses a gallon of gas but doesn’t move an inch?” So I thought I was inured to this particular horror long ago, and was surprised to find myself turning away from the stage. Not that there’s anything disgusting about the dramatization. They just bathe the monk in red light as he crinkles plastic to make a noise resembling fire. Maybe it’s the blank expression on the monk’s face, or the way the reporter becomes transfixed, rattling off a steady narrative. I don’t know. I don’t know what makes fiction so real sometimes. Effective staging, no doubt, and the odd memory with the hair trigger.

What’s unusual about the reporter, considering the nature of this war, is that he never buries his head or becomes cynical. He keeps his eyes open as he’s drawn irresistibly into the war, the people, the country. Eventually he decides to stay behind in the bush when the Ambonese (ARVN) pull out, so he can meet the guerrillas (VC). After he’s taken captive, a guerrilla officer tells him, “We are a spectacle to you. Your standpoint is aesthetic.” But the reporter still refuses to admit that he has no right to be there. And, you realize, he’s hooked. He’s gone native. Later, freed and slumped against some urban wall south of the DMZ, the reporter describes the lights and sounds of a firefight on the edge of town. But he’s speaking to no one in particular, like a bum, and it’s not he who got that story, but the story that got him.

This is the first production by the Edgar Road Theatre Company. It’s a fair beginning. The acting is nowhere near as taut and expressive as that exhibited by the Theatre de Banlieue, but it’s much more immediately accessible. Randy McPherson (as the reporter) is ingratiating and as wholesome as the great midwest, but a little short on depth. Peter Rybolt (who also directs and understudied this part) was hit or miss, yet always distinct, in 21 roles–which is no mean feat. Rybolt’s worst characterization was of a photojournalist who acts like Dennis Hopper and dresses like Peter Fonda. His best was–I can’t decide–a toss-up between a soft-spoken hooker and a psychological warfare officer who demonstrates the harmlessness of Agent Orange by mixing it with his rice. Special credit is due to both Rybolt and sound designer David Lenef, who created all sound effects and music solely with their voices. The music has an appealing Oriental/Al Jarreau feel to it, but the sound effects are lamentably ridiculous.

The line that keeps coming back to me, offering eerie commentary on both plays in this Clark Street double feature, is “We are a spectacle to you. Your standpoint is aesthetic.” Whether we see it in the theater, on the evening news, in a topical movie, or between the covers of Time magazine, for most of us, this is our only understanding of war. But this understanding is still not serious enough. To close, I’ll risk another quote, this time from Andre Malraux’ Man’s Fate: “The theater is not serious; the bullfight is serious.”