Just Like Dinosaurs (The Fourth Monkey)
In the famous Buddhist myth of the three wise monkeys, the first one is covering its ears, the second one is covering its mouth, and the third one is covering its eyes (“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”). Less often there is a fourth monkey, Shizaru, either crossing its arms over its belly, or covering its genitalia (“do no evil”). In the Buddhist interpretation of the myth, the monkeys instruct us not to speak ill of others, not to mind the business of others, and not to cause harm to others. In the Western world, they are more often understood as symbols of deception, insincerity, and ignorance, i.e. of turning a blind eye to evil. The producers of The Fourth Monkey see it in a similar way, stating in the theatre bulletin: “Shizaru represents the motto “do no evil”, but this monkey is usually missing from the paintings and statues. Thus, we do not see the evil that we do because, just as the more famous monkeys Mizaru and Kikazaru, we are covering our eyes and ears.”
Only once does a direct reference to the fourth monkey appears in the production by Handa Gote, very discreetly, when Tomáš Procházka sits down for a short while with crossed legs and arms in the typical pose of the monkeys. Thus, it is not clear how the claim, that we do not see the evil we do, is reflected in the production. This is not surprising, as it’s common for Handa Gote not to be explicit or easily understood; her work is accompanied by essayistic texts whose connection to what is happening on stage is usually not evident (and nor can we be certain as to how seriously they are actually meant to be taken).
What is clear though, is the fact that the Handa Gote’s ensemble continue their intense explorations of modern civilization; they do so in an original and funny way, but also with a tendency to astonish and an element of hopelessness. With a cheeky glee, they use various pop culture references and banal prefabrications, paradoxically also including a frequently repeated critique of the present state of the world. The people connected to Handa Gote’s ensemble are exceptionally creative in their discoveries of unusual perspectives, focusing on ridiculous, grotesque elements that are not immediately visible, or that are even intended to be overlooked. After all, with a little bit of interpretative creativity, we can see this as the meaning to the above-mentioned claim of covering our eyes and ears to evil.
A direct predecessor of The Fourth Monkey was the production Rain Dance; a ritual play about consumer excesses, very entertaining in its scary ambiguity. While Rain Dance focused on the broader present, the new production offers a grandiose surreal ride through the history of the entire planet Earth. Or, to be more specific, it shows the evolution of life on Earth, from the dinosaurs and prehistoric mankind to IKEA.
scenes from the future present The production begins with a telling scene: Veronika Švábová, Tomáš Procházka, and Anežka Kalivodová slowly walk onto a dark stage, accompanied by the terrifying sound of humming. They are all dressed in everyday casual clothes, which is characteristic of Handa Gote. Kalivodová introduces a small mechanical lunar module that resembles a crab and has a burning candle on its back. She puts the machine down and lets it walk away. All three performers silently concentrate on its slow, strenuous movement, until it suddenly stops; obstructed in its path, it is unable to proceed and so it moves its mechanical legs in vain. The stage gradually lights up and the three performers respectively place on the stage three colorful towels with the images of: a dinosaur, a tiger, and Michael Jackson. (When seen in retrospect, these three images represent three phases in life’s evolution on Earth, but at this point, they only appear to be three cheap kitschy towels.) On top of the towels, they place objects used in daily life, such as the contents of a handbag, credit cards and mobile phones, which are thrown into a heap. This somehow alludes to the preparations for a picnic, as Tomáš Procházka holds up a huge KFC bucket from which he throws a couple of chicken feet/legs onto each towels. There is a slow grave tempo and the action is carried out matter-of-factly, not ceremoniously. The three performers stand in concentration for a moment, then Procházka places the bucket on his forehead as if he wanted to extract a prophesy from it, before he retreats backstage. The women pose as they sit down, evoking Monet’s Breakfast on the Grass. Nothing exceptional has happened so far, so it is difficult to rationally analyze the ‘message’ transmitted, yet it is clear that this is not just a silly joke. The scene has a magical atmosphere, even if it is hard to explain. This, in a nutshell, is the magic of Handa Gote.
The introduction is an outline of the several blurred thematic threads that are weaved into the production. A long piece of paper is attached to the back wall, visible to the audience, giving them a “timeline” of the unfolding events. Amateurish drawings are gradually sketched on the paper and for these drawings, the performers rather awkwardly use a bread roll, ketchup and mustard, which are retrieved from Procházka’s KFC bucket. A drawing, is always preceded by a ‘prophesy’ in which Procházka holds the bucket up against his forehead and then proceeds to draw a simple circle. He then places a big bone on his forehead and draws a dinosaur, then a comet, a bull (in the style of prehistoric cave paintings), and finishes off with a series of mysterious numbers. Veronika Švábová jots down these numbers, while Anežka Kalivodová is a ‘medium’ who tries to capture unspecified signals via a huge dipole antenna, absurdly attached to her head. In addition to this, a long coaxial cable protruding from her mouth is connected with a 1980s radio-cassette player. The numbers at first form a mysterious series, which is later reduced to a series of ones and zeros.
No further explanations are given; the drawings are open to interpretation, as are all the scenes in the production. Similarly, the ‘level’ of humour is also unclear: seeing the performer stumble around the stage with a two-meter antenna on her head, climbing a ladder in order to find a better signal, is fun to watch in its strange grotesqueness. But, the threatening humming sound in the background provokes the opposite feelings. It can also be seen as a metaphor for the futility of the prophecies: the series of numbers, which were recorded with so much effort, do not make much sense. On top of that, reducing the ‘evolution of the world’ into a simple binary code of ones and zeros is frightening.
However, when looking at this scene from a slightly different perspective, we see that the magic of the production is its ability to combine concentrated seriousness with actions that seem totally absurd. This approach we see not only in The Fourth Monkey, but also in the majority of Handa Gote’s work.
All the strange onstage actions, from drawing with mustard and ketchup to eating a heap of pills (sometimes in the period between the dinosaurs and prehistoric humans), are performed in an almost scientific manner, ‘going through the motions, in a matter-of-fact way, without a trace of psychologizing or conventional acting. It seems simple, almost banal, but compared to other performances, you realize how rare this ability is. For those more acquainted with Handa Gote’s productions, it is not something new, but even so, the way in which the performers inhabit the stage never ceases to impress, or even to fascinate. They master this exceptional art of non-acting, and yet are fully expressive.
The backbone of the entire production is an imaginary movement through time. Besides the drawings, there are many other references to historical eras in The Fourth Monkey, some more and some less explicit, freely merging with one another, yet always respecting the chronology. The basic framework is in my opinion, (which is, I admit, subjective,) to create the feeling that everything first sinks back into the past, before ‘it’ ambiguously re-emerges and chaotically moves forward to a definite catastrophe. In the persistent attempt to extract a prophecy, vague fragments of the future, which is in fact the present, are projected into the past, where they are distorted. In the final scene we have the sad climax of this spiral evolution, which will be described later.
The occasional entrance of a messenger in a shiny red coat, is a kind of refrain. The messenger arrives carrying boxes of items apparently purchased online, but again no further explanations are given. When the first boxes arrive, there is a Flintstone-like scene in which ‘primitive communal society’ imitations of modern gadgets are presented; mobile phones, a big flat TV screen and its remote control are all crudely cut out of stone, thus of course are non-functional. There is an element of absurdity and ridiculousness, more so as the performers demonstratively reject modernity, yet they use the gadgets ‘correctly’; meaning for their intended purpose. They make phone calls with their stone mobile phones and the family rejoices in watching the stone TV screen that is placed on a guitar stand. Tomáš Procházka eats ‘popcorn’ out of a huge sack, which was also delivered by the messenger and is in fact green polystyrene balls.
The performers do not represent ‘prehistoric people’; they are out of time, and also out of their civilization. In the scene where they watch TV, they are wearing oversized comical dinosaur masks, naively painted, with clattering mouths and loosely hanging tongues. To see the actors, move around the stage in these dinosaur masks looking like over-sized puppets, is very entertaining. Also, their ability to switch between cute and clumsy non-acting to other, completely different performing styles, is evidence of how talented they really are.
The dinosaurs appear in The Fourth Monkey repeatedly, with characteristic ambiguity, entangled in a entire web of meanings. Sometimes they represent the banal evergreen singers of pop culture, thus appearing as symbols of the hopelessly old-fashioned, or as reminders of the threatened possible extinction of entire species or epochs. In this sense, the dinosaurs are paradoxically – and mischievously - linked to the comet, which can either be interpreted as a symbol of hope in the Christian context, or an ill omen, in which an asteroid crashes into the Earth, a great catastrophe which led to the involuntary disappearance of the dinosaurs giving place to the mammals). On the drawing representing the ‘timeline’, the comet appears immediately after the dinosaurs. One would think it was all very clear, except for the fact that the messenger brought the comet in pieces, made out of tin, along with an IKEA construction manual. It is in the shadow of this comet that the family of dinosaurs enjoy their last carefree TV Christmas.
We see the dinosaurs taking selfies in front of their stone TV and next to their ‘father’s’ corpse, (he died accidentally from an electric shock). A little later, the prehistoric people sit around a fire, which is made out of three electric light bulbs imitating flames. Evolution then sprints forward at the speed of lightning and the prophesies take on a more modern form. In addition to the above-mentioned antenna, there is ‘mind-reading’ with a strange gadget, clearly manufactured in present times. Tomáš Procházka produces ‘thereminvox’ style sounds through his ‘headphones’, making both actresses move in perpetual spasms.
The “evolutionary spiral” has moved a few threads forward, as before this, the stone imitations of modern gadgets (i.e. mobile phone) had been used to make the prophecies. Mixing prehistory with modernity can be understood as a grotesquely distorted vision of the future. The so-called cargo cult, is a magical ritual based on the external features of the modern world used as they are without understanding their real meaning, adds another ironic level to the onstage action.
This rather strange, yet relatively merry tour through history culminates very bitterly in the final scene. At first, there is a relaxed atmosphere. Procházka makes a prophesy from a commonly printed book. He puts the book on his face and tears out the pages one by one. Meanwhile, Kalivodová receives from the messenger the latest modern invention – a robotic arm, which according to the accompanying leaflet can be used to reach crisps from a distance, while watching TV. Kalivodová uses the robotic arm to grab (with some difficulty) one of the book pages that Procházka has torn out, and she gives it to Švábová, who in turn jots down on this timeline’ paper, the last of the number series, which are ones and zeroes. Then, the messenger brings in a big box, mysteriously emanating light and smoke. Kalivodová carefully opens the box with the robotic arm. There is a lot of smoke and an almost unrecognizably distorted version of the fanfare from Smetana’s opera Libuše starts to play in the background, while an apocalyptic snowstorm erupts on the stage. The humans, suddenly defenseless, huddle together in the center of the stage covering themselves with three laptops, as is their only protection. Darkness slowly falls, and only cacophonic sounds can be heard.
The ending reminds me of the final scene of Super Natural, by their kindred ensemble Wariot Ideal, from seven years ago. There, in that other production, the three hopeless protagonists try to follow instructions from various survival manuals, and end up wrapped in pieces of the props, cables and other rubbish picked from the stage, in front of a flickering candle, waiting for their saviour from above. It didn’t look very hopeful. The Fourth Monkey’s finale is more abstract and feels even more desperate: It is no longer possible to face the threats of the world in an active and rational manner, which is naïve and ineffective. On the other hand, there is the persistent effort of Handa Gote to create images full of meaning; ambiguous, yet telling. In a time when critiques of civilization and consumer society often resemble banal rituals, these opuses on the theme of civilization are much desired exceptions.
The Fourth Monkey, created by Veronika Švábová, Anežka Kalivodová, Tomáš Procházka, Jonáš Svatoš, Jakub Hybler, Ken Ganfield, Jan Dörner, Lukáš Jiřička, Jan Brejcha, Mikoláš Zika and Adam Pospíšil, Handa Gote research & development, premiere November 19, 2019 (Alfred ve dvoře Theatre)
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 1, volume 2020
translated by Hana Pavelková