More Pests to then Theatre! Less Illusionists
For the past few years, Wariot Ideal theatre company have opened each theatre season with a new ‘site-specific’ performance, premiered as part of the 4 + 4 Days in Motion Festival. In 2019, the group presented a more traditionally conceived production, called PESTS, which took place in one of the dilapidated rooms of the Desfours Palace in Prague. The artists styled and equipped the setting so that it had the atmosphere and furnishings of an upper-class manor of faded glory, bearing the marks of provisional repairs, and clogged with junk and clutter.
The walls had pastoral wallpaper and were decorated with framed classical paintings and the room was lit by plastic tubes, similar to strip lighting, with dry bread rolls on cords hanging from these tubes replacing the crystals of sumptuous chandeliers. On a shelf at the back, there were rows of little white busts, possibly meant to commemorate some distinguished ancestors. The most notable ‘furniture’ in the room was provided by two cardboard ‘houses’, one of which was covered by a fringed crimson cloth, perhaps a curtain from long ago.
The introductory scene set the overall atmosphere and genre of the production; as a clownish, roguish aristocrat (Vojta Švejda) crawled from one of the cardboard dens. His lips were painted white and he wore very ragged ‘noble’ breeches, long socks and a dirty donkey jacket. He looked quite crazy and he acted accordingly, ripping apart a large bag of cornflakes, handfuls of which he shoved into his mouth, so that they keep falling all over the floor. In between the mouthfuls he threw the cornflakes all around, just for fun, all the while grunting loudly and behaving more like a wild beast than a man. In this manner he ‘did away with the whole contents, after which he tries to ‘fight’ the empty floating bag, quite comically and aggressively, before finally crumpling it; in a sort of a rage. It was a perfect example of grotesque pantomime and clownery.
The rest of the production ran along the same lines. Behind the crimson cloth, which covered the entrance to the second cardboard dwelling, we discover two other manic ‘cornflake devourers’ (Jan Dörner and Jan Kalivoda), who turn out to be the sons of the manor-owning bumpkin. They are boyishly uncouth, ungovernable and curious; and they systematically attempt to completely destroy the already devastated manor. Yes, they are in fact the eponymous pests, who most of the time, resemble animals; for example when they sniff around the room (to a country music track in the background) trying to find something worth their attention. However, their bestiality is evidently inherited – their father being the uncrowned king of impatience and devilish ill temper. The trio communicate by means of various emotional spluttering and oral ‘farting’, which seems to meet their needs quite sufficiently.
The humour derives from the contrast and the echo of the aristocratic past with the present-day boorishness (or helplessness in approaching their heritage). While an old TV plays a romantic soap opera, the father ceremoniously bangs a drum, as if announcing the entrance of a king, while all three protagonists stagger around, kicking one another’s butts. In fact, they reminded me of clowns throughout the whole performance. Whatever they do, there is not a trace of mutual empathy or respect for their surroundings. They walk all over each other in a breakneck manner, bumping into each other, pulling “furniture” on top one another, breaking things. One of the sons pulls a TV cable from the plug, takes the TV and starts cuddling it on the floor. When it’s time for tea, there is only a drop of it, so it has to be replaced by alcohol. Nobody bothers to wash the dishes; they are simply thrown on the floor and broken. In one of the classic, yet rewarding gags, during a seemingly cultivated teatime (or rather an attempt at such a ritual) the father hands tea cups to his sons, letting them fall on the floor before the boys can manage to take them.
The two boys entertain themselves mainly by destroying everything around them; often in the guise of ‘knightly’ duels. These begin with a ceremonious exchange of soccer flags, after which the destruction begins, either as a brutal soccer match with one of the cardboard houses in place of a football or as a duel with the family busts. The father beats his sons furiously with foam rubber sticks for the damage they have caused, and then tries to mend what he can. Yet before he can manage it, the devastation continues, as the boys have another idea… However, much of the destruction is due to the father’s quick temper, which makes him rage and then vandalize everything within his reach.
The only salvation imaginable thus resides in ‘cultivation’, which the father announces by pulling out a sign with the determined phrase “OFF TO THE GALLERY!”, which the trio reach after a long, clumsy and again quite furious ‘reading’ of an old map. Once in the gallery (in front of the classical paintings on the walls), the father begins his lecture, which he learnedly ‘farts’ and spits out at the boys in the rhythm of a classical orchestra piece. The boys try to listen, but their instincts are stronger than their will – it seems that the only way to comprehend this enlightening experience is to literally ‘taste’ the art. One of the sons (Dörner) does not hesitate and really ‘takes a bite’. This beastly treatment of their ‘cultural heritage’ seems to draw a line under the last hint of refinement and socially acceptable behaviour. The final elements of civilization go down the drain: we are now watching three avowed savages. With the help of his other son the father catches the ‘biting’ culprit with a lasso (actually the electric cord of a musical instrument) and then throws a sack over his head; and tortures him with the pumped up, unpleasant sounds of a strange, (probably DIY) electric guitar and some sort of a plank, played with a bow. The tormented son gradually falls into a trance and starts to play a guitar himself. Only phosphorescent inscriptions, such as “Let Mišík sing” or the anarchist “A”, now light the walls of the dimmed room. To this, the trio indulge in a bestial, wild punk improvisation, which is intentionally so long that it is almost unbearable. It’s as if they have gotten rid of all social constraints and returned to their “primal” selves: so, they do not care about the surrounding world and its demands anymore. This is a dig at the spectators, as in “you know what, we don’t care what you think”, but it does not come across as conceited or aggressive. The motto of that year’s 4+4 Days in Motion festival was “nobody has anything”, and Pests certainly lived up to expectations, maybe with a slight variation: no matter where we come from, no matter what our (social) status has been, we are ultimately really not much more than vermin…
However, Wariot Ideal do not aim to burden their audience with serious ‘profundity’; so, more than anything else Pests is a comedy; and brilliantly performed clownery. As usual, it is a production typical of the company and it does not seem to be a problem that they are repeating themselves somewhat. All the clutter and recycled or DIY objects, the nonverbal clownery and an inclination to “gentle” anarchy combined with unpretentiousness are already a Wariot Ideal trademark. But their playful and un-moralizing reflection: on the tragicomic; ridiculous; yet often sincere endeavour of human beings to overcome their civilised and socially constrained condition (in order to reach a state of freedom, truth and fascination with life) is always genuine and important.
* In Autumn 2019 Wariot Ideal re-premiered their production called The Stink Trap (first staged in 2009). A man of the ‘scientist’ type (Vojta Švejda) lengthily explains and discusses something called Imelo (‘problem 35c’), a phenomenon, which he attempts to describe and depict. He speaks ‘bad Slovakian’, which helps to enhance the comic distance. In the course of his lecture, he digresses and runs off to other ‘essential’ existential (pseudo) philosophical topics:(“Why does stuff happen?” “What’s normal, what is not normal and what is abnormal?”), clearly longing to find some sort of a final solution; classification; categorization. Švejda’s performance is a subtle parody; of infinite pseudoscientific quasi-intellectual talk. His character holds the attention of the audience thanks only to his own engrossed attention on the topic; his enthusiasm, even though the content of his lecture is absurd; indecipherable, nonsensical. He wants to come to a final solution, so he can be done with the topic once and for all. However, the exact opposite happens – one thought leads to another in an uncontrollable spiral, which keeps unwinding in an increasingly frantic manner and finally gets out of hand. The members of the audience, being present in and part of the process, cannot but leave the theatre with a feeling that it would be better if people did not talk at all; or possibly only with a determination to verbalize that which is absolutely necessary.
The scientist’s struggle with himself is commented on or maybe developed by another man (Jan Kalivoda), who gradually takes over: overshadowing the first man. The second man does not speak at all – apart from the repeated refrain of “quack, quack, quack”; a blunt commentary on the scientist’s babbling – yet his actions are similarly futile. This inner critic’ can be thought of, as the materialisation of the scientist’s paradoxical train of thoughts, of the subconscious chaos. Yet he is also as a completely separate entity; someone who attempts the same thing, but goes about it in a completely opposing manner - ultimately with the same outcome. Clearly, they are communicating vessels – operating very similarly to the mechanism of the eponymous stink trap/.
The second guy seems to spoil everything: he is there to baffle the scientist; being the instigator of various incomprehensible ‘mysteries’; failures of technology and annoying malfunctions; which seem to happen all the time in real life and with which are not easy to cope with: due to accumulated frustration, often unrelated to the given ‘problem’. In contrast to his babbling counterpart, the second man is exceedingly kinetic. He goes from action (in the end always unsuccessful) to action – be it some worn-out magic performance; a frantic fooling around with drain plungers in flashing stroboscope light; or in the construction of a long line of plastic cups. These are meant to fall down like dominos, when he knocks over the first one. However, this of course does not work out. What ensues is a tangible chaos, as this ‘other self’ litters the stage with junk, predominantly air-filled plastic bags – in other words, a huge, monstrous, blown-up NOTHING. However, it is human to seek some sort of meaning or order (or some universal system) even amongst such mayhem. And so, if the world cannot be explained in its complexity, we should at least be able to simplify it… Yet, the ‘chaos’ that would unavoidably arise from the suggested ‘solution’ in the form of a new language system, is truly unimaginable.
The fundamental and symptomatic moment, which The Stink Trap has in common with other (later) Wariot Ideal productions, comes at the moment when both men literally ‘lose it’; and the meticulously constructed system, this rationally and technically thought-out structure (be it conceptual or physical) collapses. For a moment both men stop pretending that they are in control of the situation and they give in to frustrated rage – the scientist, up to now so calm and rational, is now furious, fuming and going mad, while the other guy goes about destroying everything he brought onto stage (in the hope of creating something). However, the destruction is not an end in itself. It is meant to reveal a tragi-comic, utterly human moment, to remind us of how little control we have over things and events; that we are constantly groping in the dark and that it is okay…
In other words, it is a momentary “lapse” into the unconscious; a temporary manifestation of some animal, instinctive, raw ‘truth’; the collapsing of our self-image, of the way we ‘perform’ the world. The crucial moment of truth is related to a sudden, intensively experienced epiphany of something that we usually suppress – that life cannot be ‘tidied up’; that things will not simply go away and get lost; that all we do is transfer them elsewhere, be it into ideas or objects, with which human beings litter the earth; that a linear road to whatever goals we set for ourselves is an illusion. So that, we should laugh at this illusion; and see it with understanding.
* The Illusionist – this production, which marks the tenth anniversary of the Wariot Ideal theatre company – reminds me of The Stink Trap at the beginning. Vojta Švejda is comfortably seated in an armchair, holding a microphone and welcoming spectators to “his humble theatre”. Throughout the introductory monologue he is – just as in The Stink Trap – at a loss for words, as if playing the role of a jovial actor, a former star, or maybe a television ‘old-hand’ reminiscing. His speech is quite monotonous and lengthy; and he employs many clichés and phrases to convey the beauties of being an actor; and what theatre means to him – “a space for illusion”, which he now wants to make use of as much as he can and please his audience with a 'professional performance”. In the synopsis for The Illusionist, Švejda and Petr Forman, who was invited to help direct the production, describe their protagonist as someone whose job it is to create illusion; while also succumbing to it, (implying some sort of self-deception). As a paradox, and in theory it sounds great; however the production does not manage to achieve this, as it is a simple succession of straightforward sketches, which capture or illustrate certain ideas predictably.
The set shows no signs of the usual DIY, recycled minimalism of Wariot Ideal. The action takes place in this miniature model of a classical theatre with a proscenium arch and a curtain. The whole set can be subdivided into even smaller parts by means of several other curtains. At the front there is a box office window with an old gramophone, which plays varied ‘genre’ music matching the given scene. The pompous introductory Beethoven is followed by ominous country music in the ‘Wild West’ scene and there is ‘cabaret piano’ music, to accompany the magician’s show. On the proscenium arch we can read the inscription “me to myself”, which caricatures the Prague National Theatre slogan “the nation to itself”. And really, the actor-magician is the first (and last) soloist here; while also performing the roles of stage manager and technician. This little theatre is his whole world, which is certainly not fuelled by the needs and desires of ‘the nation’, but rather solely by his own.
The illusionist’s task or maybe even mission is to amaze and astonish the audience by means of his art and skills; to ‘create’ little miracles. However, our ‘hero’ does not perform much magic during his time on stage; which is also explained by the fact that the individual scenes are constantly interrupted by ‘real life’. The mysterious atmosphere of the show performed by the magician - who had promised levitation and other supernatural events – is disrupted by a phone call, which the actor has to answer, then he has to remove some stage props, as there are no technicians who could take care of it and finally the fuse blows. Meanwhile, the illusion is also consistently spoiled by the actor himself; by his clumsy ‘art’ and skills. An actor needs to be able to play a musical instrument – thus, Švejda plays his guitar, performing an endless, spiritless ‘composition’. As such, it is not very amusing or interesting. The real meaning of this lengthy scene is revealed only by the one that follows it: which adds a new dimension to the original: the whole piece is replayed again, this time in its recorded version, with all the mistakes and falters of a ‘live’ performance. The actor now accompanies this ‘incidental’ music with pantomime. He performs a very abbreviated version of a bad fairy-tale, playing the roles of the king, the knight and the princess all by himself, using simple costume changes, ‘revealing’ that all theatre ‘magic’ is simply a ‘trick’. In the case of our protagonist, all of the tricks are kind of worn out; his show is in fact full of blunders – the flower for the princess, which should magically ‘hang’ in the air has to be repeatedly (and clumsily) hung on a wire while the king’s crown refuses to move around following its bearer and stays levitating on the spot.
But the show must go on and it is time for the ‘comic scene’, starring a very busy cook named Boženka. This sketch is supposed to derive its humour from the classic exchange of gender roles. Švejda puts on a women’s wig and an apron, and hops around the little stage; using his arms to convey everything that this worn-out folk character has to do, including increasingly numerous swigs from a bottle, which of course have an effect on the lady’s coordination. The whole scene is an intentional cliché. However, it fails to transcend or comment on itself in a surprising; let alone subversive manner. It is neither ‘lousy’, nor ‘crazy’ enough.
When playing the magician, the actor performs various deliberately easily decipherable, even “nonsensical” magic tricks; especially the repeated one with the guillotine, which cuts a banana in half, while the magician’s arm stays intact. The levitating glass, and chair are amusing mainly because of the magician’s serious facial expression and his quite clumsy technical preparations. The highlight of the show comes at the end, with a jacket that has fake fingers attached to one of its shoulders. The protagonist hangs it up so awkwardly after his stand-up that what should have been hidden from the audience is now fully revealed, ‘giving away’ the trick behind the ‘magic’. The dreamlike “Wild West” duel in the train station makes use of lighting design and costume changes: or let’s say ‘a double costume’ to perform its illusion, that is the transformation of the ‘good’ cowboy in white into the bad, aggressive villain. It becomes dark for a moment, during which the actor turns around; removing his hat, so that it now hangs on his back; the stage lighting changes the atmosphere and the ‘magic’ is done. Too bad, that this – again - does not come across as surprising.
In the second “half”, after the announced break (lights are turned on in the auditorium and the actor leaves the little stage for awhile), we are rewarded with a scene that comes the closest to creating true theatre magic. The bottom of the ocean is technically just a piece of billowing linen, the undersea atmosphere being created by foggy darkness, lit by beams of light and accompanied by the sounds of a submerging bathyscaphe – it is very simple, yet enchanting, even though we know what ‘tricks’ are being used – that it is the actor who is making the sand dunes billow, that it is not an actual cup fungus that he is pushing through the holes in the linen but something like cheerleader ‘pom-poms’ and that the snakelike animal that is about to attack the cup fungus is simply the actor’s arm, probably in a knee sock.
As the show goes on, it looks like mishap and fiasco are inevitable. The source of the mysterious rumbling behind the scenes is revealed to be very down to earth – the actor is trying to move a heavy piece of stage set (a wooden screen) around, however, it is very unrealistically ‘sound-engineered’, so that it seems a dinosaur is approaching. Partially this noise can be attributed to the unbearable pounding of the man’s ski boots, in which he then plays a heavy-metal solo on his guitar, with the boots attached to the wooden screen now lying on the floor. Thus, he can perform true, exuberant ‘hard rock gymnastics’, being able to bend forward and backward almost down to the ground. This fresh blast of crazy originality, this invasion of controlled anarchy is closest to the distinctive poetics of Wariot Ideal.
In any case, the protagonist has had enough, only a superhero could manage so many roles – thus he has to turn into one right away. He puts on a padded out, ‘muscular’ costume and starts running amongst the spectators in the auditorium, screaming and climbing up the walls of his little theatre in the allusion to King Kong (hence the model of Empire State Building instead of the chimney), protecting the female members of the audience from the giant, swinging meteor. As if he has gone berserk from all of the tasks he has had to perform, he now tries to destroy his sanctuary, goading the audience to help him. The little theatre ‘goes on fire’ with pieces of flying red linen, however, it does not come to total destruction. We are in the theatre, so it is easy to ‘edit’ the scene and play some Dvořák, for example… That is, to finish properly, in a ‘civilized’ manner. However, endings are expected to be splendid, so the actor returns to the promise he made in the beginning: to end the performance by jumping from the flies into a plastic cup filled with water. While at it, he is very down to earth, calm, as if it was just common routine. However, here he has – of course - misjudged himself, the outcome being the ‘destruction’ of his image by way of a very funny, yet embarrassing failure. The ropes, which belay him, get stuck and he is suspended in mid-air, not being able to come down or return back to the flies, desperately jerking his legs. In spite of all his vigorous attempts to finish his stunt, he stays in this unpleasant position throughout the curtain call, assisted by two technicians, who pull open the curtain (Jan Dörner, Jan Kalivoda) – unlike the actor, they can at least bow to the audience with dignity.
Švejda has proved several times before that he is the master of solo clownery, being a ‘natural’ on the stage, almost as if he has just appeared there ‘by accident’. The minor changes in his slightly impenetrable expression as well as the very casual, unforced way he moves around the stage are a pleasure to watch. As the intentionally mediocre ‘jack of all theatre-related trades’ he passes muster, however, the concept of the whole performance limits him. It does not seem that this actor actually has much illusion about himself and his art. He rather seems not to care very much – he will always ‘knock it together’ somehow and move on to the next position. But to seek some radical (self) irony in this production would be futile endeavour.
PESTS, directed and put together by Wariot Ideal, premiere October 8, 2019 as part of the 4+4 Days in Motion festival, Desfours Palace
The Stink Trap, directed and put together by Wariot Ideal, renewed premiere October 22, 2019 (Alfréd ve dvoře Theatre)
The Illusionist, directed by Petr Forman, music Jan Kalivoda, lighting design Jan Dörner, production Milena Dörnerová, technical cooperation Petr Horký and Jan Niesyt, stage design cooperation Josef Sodomka, costumes Lenka Polášková, Wariot Ideal, premiere November 28, 2019 (Alfréd ve dvoře Theatre)
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 1, volume 2020
translated by Ester Žantovská
) Stink Trap: a trap in a sewer, that by means of a water seal prevents the upward passage of foul-smelling gases. (Civil Engineering)