at the 1994 International Theatre Festival of Chicago, Navy Pier Skyline Stage

Watching Camel Gossip III is like being thrown into a soup. You sit and wonder what will come floating by next. It’s not just that there’s a stew of theatrical elements; after all, most shows have music, movement, lights, props. What’s different about Dogtroep, a company of actors, dancers, musicians, and designers from the Netherlands, is that they spread these elements all over the theatrical space, from way above the stage to way below it, from the front to the rear of a ramp that runs right through the middle of the house. It’s like being at the circus: you swivel in your seat and crane your neck, afraid you’ll miss something if you don’t.

In this dreamlike world, distractions and transformations are far more real than continuity and stability. “You mean there isn’t a story?” my daughter asked incredulously before the show began. “It’s just people spitting water?” Well, yes and no. There is a story of sorts, but the characters split in two, appear and disappear, die and then revive.

Camel Gossip III is also literally soupy: sheets of water fall onto the stage, vats of it slosh under the stage, great cascading quantities of fake pee and rain overflow the stage. Sometimes it seems a blessing, other times a curse, but it’s always beautiful, always sparkling and dancing. The many-faceted surface of Camel Gossip III glitters and scintillates, surprises and entices; and on the level of spectacle and humor, Dogtroep surely “play for everyone,” as they claim in the program. But what lies beneath that surface is less surely appealing.

There’s definitely food for thought in this soup. Dogtroep transforms, for instance, the traditional stage curtain: two lines of old clothes are strung up with clothespins on wires held by saggy posts. And this curtain doesn’t rise, it gets pulled down by a harridan in fright wig muttering to herself, who piles the clothes on someone else to create a moving mountain of fabric. It’s wonderful to see something traditionally grand and expansive, the red velvet brocade theater curtain, entirely rethought: tattered and makeshift, telescoped and trundled off, rags to the ragbag.

But much of the rest of Camel Gossip III is incongruously big and expensive given this beginning. We get a giant clock/sun/bicycle wheel, elaborately painted wardrobes suspended in air, collapsible houses, a huge scaffolding, trapdoors everywhere, mikes on long arms manipulated by the performers to hover like spaceships over the audience. Many of these set pieces create wonderful effects, and many drew applause just in themselves–it had to be in themselves, because often they seemed to have no connection with what was going on.

Because, as I say, there is a story of sorts. People have homes and lose them, then rebuild them. Or choose bicycles as their homes. A comic villain haunts the piece, a hugely fat man in a hard hat, maybe a soldier but more likely a construction worker; a man who is angry and complacent and treats women like dirt. He gives birth to a woman who wriggles like a fish, a woman who in turn haunts him, who refuses to die, who torments him and destroys his home. The opposition isn’t difficult to figure out: he’s practical mankind, the plebeian stuck in the physical world and tormented by anyone who’s not; she’s the imagination, the builder of beautiful structures that last forever because they exist in the mind. What bothered me was the enmity established between the two worlds, and the utter contempt shown for the material world.

Camel Gossip III seems to reflect the circumstances behind the mounting of the show–Dogtroep tailors its pieces to the sites at which they’re performed. But the Navy Pier Skyline Stage wasn’t completed when it was supposed to be, before Dogtroep came to town a month ago, and so the company was laboring side by side with real construction workers–competing with them in a way, because the relationship was reportedly contentious. In that sense Camel Gossip III is perfectly suited to the site. But the show seems to continue a vendetta, to give Dogtroep the last word in an argument in which we have no stake.

And what’s so terrible about the physical world anyway? It’s the basis for all Dogtroep’s wonderful images, the substratum for its fascinating surface. More than that, what makes Dogtroep so appealing is the way it struggles to come to terms with the physical world, battles to make it serve the imagination. Our knowledge of that difficulty is what makes us ooh and aah. In one of the most arresting moments in Camel Gossip III the battle threatens to go against the artists: six women push a gigantic bicycle with a woman atop it up a ramp lined on either side with innocent audience members. The women were visibly struggling to move the bicycle and keep it on the ramp; I kept visualizing the gigantic metal contraption toppling off and crushing people. Theatrical illusion was lost; but for a moment I was touched and frightened. And I can’t say that for much else in this Dogtroep soup.