The Stoka Series is Still Running (Parts 36-38)
Although the Bratislava theatre Stoka is intrinsically linked with the figure of its founder and initiator Blaho Uhlár, who he collaborates with is undeniably also crucial. At the moment, Uhlár is surrounded by a group of performers about two generations younger than himself, recent graduates from the VŠMU Academy (Uhlár commented quite seriously that he is not so happy about that because acting should not be taught at academies). This is a substantial change from the times when the core of Stoka was made up of people much closer to Uhlár in age who mostly openly declared themselves to be non-actors who made up for any possible lack of technical skills by their personal magnetism. And that is not to speak of the period when Stoka performed with steadily smaller line-ups and in addition to his traditional role of demiurge Uhlár also became temporarily, perhaps from necessity, a performer himself.
Stoka’s contemporary form began to take shape in 2012. While still a student Braňo Mosný appeared in a minor role in an autobiographical theatre-film “documentary” Attempt) and gradually other actors of his generation have joined. However, the old Stoka customs are still hold true: the final form is sought collectively and all performers are also co-creators. The distinctive poetics of a cruel awkwardness has also remained.
■ Projectile is Stoka’s thirty sixth premiere in a row. On the ensemble’s website, alongside this impressive figure, there is a specific comment about this production: “One actress and four actors marvel about what is constantly gushing from them, they get into complicated situations the solution to which they do not quite understand…” Projectile is in fact a distinctive “piece of relations”, an intimate production – and it should also be said that it is a minimalistically economical production. Most of the scenes, more or less self-contained as is the custom in Stoka’s productions, are created by dialogues supplemented by uncomplicated actions; the stage remains largely unoccupied and with some rare exceptions props are not needed (Stoka does not in fact have funds to squander but this fact can be put aside for the time being). As a counterpoint to the personal conversations, a big TV screen is suspended over the stage and the usual programme of a Slovak news channel runs in the short breaks between scenes. Any fraying around the edges of the “inside” and “outside” worlds cannot therefore by definition be intentional and targeted but acts as something like a – understandably very ironic - horizon for the inward-looking events on the stage.
A typical scene of Projectile begins with a totally banal meeting of two (or less often three) characters. A conversation starts but the talk starts spinning out of control in the first lines and it continues in meaningless jumps, peculiar strings of logic or, in contrast, it revolves obstinately around a single motif.
At times, however, everything takes on the shape of the absurd an sich. For example when a father with words “Terka, meet your new lover!” introduces to a seated girl his son, a rather simple-looking youngster who constantly folds a corner of his costume, squirms and laughs idiotically, occasionally kicks his leg into the air pointlessly and always harks back in various ways to the line “show the twat”. The girl sits throughout the (rather long) scene and stares at the ground, relentlessly repeating her own refrain, “I’ll have a lemonade!” The prospective young couple (like the father who “moderates” the conversation in a futile effort at authoritative dignity) do not offer any inner motivation for their conduct but these are not caricatures of young people and this is not satire. The apparent aim is the most consistent development of the situation (no matter how absurd) and a ceaseless escalation of awkwardness. Moreover everything gradually turns into mutual abuse, which is another motif of the production as a whole. (After all, Stoka has worked creatively with vulgarisms and vulgarity throughout its existence.)
If we want to seek meaning in ostentatious nonsense this is just an exaggerated portrayal of an inability to communicate normally, combined with feebly motivated or autonomic aggression. However, this particular scene can be seen on another level. Following the father’s successful ejection of his son after a childish argument he kneels before the little girl himself, caresses her knee and in a suddenly erotically thickened tone he asks: “How did you like Jakub?” And the girl answers: “Which Jakub?” With this she starts another pointless dialogue in which they call each other dickheads. Finally father is trying to lure the girl to his home and when repeatedly rejected he asks quietly but menacingly: “Do you want to stay here? By yourself? Anybody could come here… Aren’t you scared, Terka?” With this he leaves and the whole scene ends. The result is not easy to grasp but there is an almost palpable sense of emptiness, belligerence, overall threat and complete transition.
Such uneasily constructed passages are the strongest in the whole production. However, Projectile also contains many scenes conceived rather like an expanded joke and there is no lack of straightforward blackouts. For example when Tomáš Pokorný enters the proscenium, pensively scrunching his nipple and then says in a matter-of-fact tone: “The first time I jerked off was when I was twelve years old. And the last time was twelve years ago.” And with that he turns round and leaves.
But Stoka’s poetics include the fact that even those more logical, more straightforwardly funny acts incorporate not only the customary flood of vulgarisms and aggression but also a sizeable dose of the absurd. A man lovingly embraces his wife at home but she calls him not by his right name “Martin” but as “Maroš” (which is the name of a colleague). An endless dialogue follows in which they are smiling rather rigidly at each other. The husband acts as if nothing has happened but at the same time he harks on about his wife’s supposed lover with obsessive and intensified awkwardness (“Is your office separated in some way? At least by trousers?”). Clearly it is not a conversational pleasantry on the theme of marital infidelity, but rather a consistent developing of the situation ending – again – with a hint of aggression: “I’ve got a headache. / So you’ll have your tiny little pill. / I hope you won’t force me to have sex with you when I’ve got a headache, it would be rather intolerant. / I will make you.” But the scene in which a man introduces his male lover to his wife proceeds rather similarly and he tries in vain to manage a confused quarrel of all with all – also this time almost unbearably awkward and wayward – and at the same time to fend off reproaches that he is homosexual or on the contrary hetero. Nevertheless, the directors never hesitate to cross lines; I can imagine that this act alone could anger both conservatives and progressive rainbow activists.
Although the various actors do not represent specific or at least more distinctly defined characters, some of them nevertheless create types to which they repeatedly return through the series of variations. This is most obvious in the case of Lenka Libjaková. The only woman on the stage capitalizes on her type of a petite, innocent and almost childish looking blonde; she smiles self-consciously, often gives an impression of passivity, or at other times provides a normal (at least at first sight more normal) contrast to the more grotesquely stylized men. Her macho opponent is Tomáš Pokorný. A burly bearded lumbersexual, masculinely angular, with a deep resonant voice which is used with an appreciative irony, for example in the character of the tearfully hysterical homosexual in the scene mentioned above. The remaining men (Peter Tilajčík, Martin Kollár and Braňo Mosný) demonstrate when necessary their ability to fill a collection of curiosities with their expressions, often bordering on a grotesque sneer. In Projectile there are no complicated actions, but actors are often arranged in conspicuous and illogical positions, frequently also violating their personal spaces. In one of the scenes a man tells his partner that he slept with her best friend and at the same time he is enraged that it does not annoy her, she apologizes, in a welter of vulgarisms and strained smiles. Both slowly revolve around their axes throughout the act, like peculiar toys or dolls in a shop window (or even a kebab). The weirdness and uncertainty are further emphasized by costumes. Simple white robes made of stretchy fabric into which actors are wrapped are reminiscent of slightly ancient togas. Robes (everybody has theirs cut in a different way) can be pulled and rolled up or down, men’s genitals are provocatively outlined under the soft fabric. Everyone is barefooted. The meaning here is not tangible but the impression of degraded nobility, cheapness and unreality is clearly evoked.
All the above scenes could perhaps appear without major adjustments in some of Stoka’s earlier line-ups but this rejuvenated one also brings more topical motifs. For example Martin Kollár has a solo slot in which he quite matter-of-factly and almost journalistically recounts his drug-fuelled expedition to a drum and bass festival. In the contemporary Stoka narcotics are actually almost as favoured a subject as vulgarity. I would guess that this is one of taboos that it is not appropriate to joke about – and this is exactly why Uhlár & Co. pursue it with such gusto. This is not to suggest that they neglect blasphemy of an entirely traditional kind. Projectile ends with a couple of interconnected scenes in which three men first talk about Jesus’s coming with the imbecilely hysterical ardour of pop fans (“Once in a millennium and we can witness that!”), then they take down their idol from an imaginary cross with nastily exhilarating brays at the same time literally licking his legs. Christ is played by Peter Tilajčík, unobtrusively and passively but with a slightly blasphemous stepladder instead of a cross and with a clearly blasphemous incontinence nappy instead of a loincloth. When Christ is laid on a riser only Tomáš Pokorný stays on the stage, he opens a bottle of whiskey (probably a real one), has several sizeable swigs and launches into a seductively drunken conversation with Lenka Libjaková. The topic of conversation is rain, rising waters and the fact that people are three-quarters water and so it is better to follow the surface. But they also talk rather loftily, about the universe and planets colliding with each other like people. Tilajčík lies behind them in a position evoking Holbein’s picture of the dead Jesus and the whole ends in shallow water. More precisely, with the man falling down on the girl and drunkenly mumbling the last word of the production: “Boobs”.
Much of the dialogue could be understood with a certain interpretative creativity as a key to ultimately deeper levels of the production, but the hints are very discreet and indeed inconclusive. Projectile thus remains – I suppose quite intentionally – barely a series of grotesque, slightly aggressive partnership scenes which are hard to grasp. And naturally also a practical, intriguing and consistent exploration of the possibilities of stage awkwardness. (Although this could be said of a majority of productions I have seen from Stoka over the years.) The difficulty is that the form is perhaps too fragile.
■ The production Wellness also came into existence through a process of free (or ex post fixed) improvisation and it offers – as is after all usual in the case of Stoka – a show that is entertaining but also graceless, not always understandable and definitely throws the audience off balance.
The performance began in style. The lengthy seating of the audience was accompanied by Braňo Mosný knocking off variations on familiar pop melodies on an electric piano and from time to time augmenting them by howling in terrible English. In comparison to other productions by today’s Stoka Wellness gives the impression of being more visual or at least more visually constricted. Above an otherwise vacant stage was suspended a large pale canopy full of blood red liquid that gradually dripped into a basin in the right front corner; nothing tangible (though with a certain stretch of the imagination you could see the canopy as resembling a giant breast), but rather a visual supplement to many indefinitely scary moments that follow one another in the course of evening like a string of poisonous beads.
Blood appeared repeatedly in the course of the performance and in various contexts. The first time was in the first “proper” scene. Following the end of a prologue two actresses (Michaela Halcinová and Lenka Libjaková) sat down on chairs facing each other; blood was constantly running out of the second woman’s mouth so that she literally talked with a full mouth. From time to time she started to choke and splutter but did not stop smiling in a rather stupefied way. While Halcinová looked rather matter-of-fact, Libjaková – in a yellow plastic raincoat and white T-shirt soaked with blood – did not abandon her affectionately persuasive, seductive tone. The dialogue was disconnected, with pauses and repeated stammering:
LL: You are beautiful woman…
MH: Thank you.
LL: Luv you.
MH: Are you sick?
MH: The way you look.
LL: Have you ever had sex with a woman?
MH: Not yet.
LL: And you want to?
MH: Maybe. Should I bring you a bucket?
LL: I only have one bucket. Full of love.
When the ladies left (the seducer was apparently successful but it was the absurdity of the whole scene that was more substantial) Braňo Mosný appeared on the stage in a white doctor’s coat over a naked body and to the accompaniment of (a recording of) Händel’s aria Ombra Mai Fu began to clean up the slops on the floor with its tails. He crawled crookedly over the floor, genitals flapping and revealing various unattractive glimpses. The readiness “to cross the line” and at the same time to appear as if nothing had happened is a firm part of Uhlár’s poetics – and it should be emphasized from the start that it apparently holds in full measure in Wellness. And far from only in the nudity.
Still to the sound of majestic music, the first of a series of religious persiflage starts: Martin Kollár enters dressed “halfway smart” (in black underpants and white shirt) and starts nailing himself to a cross. Although he has a quite serious expression on his face and he hisses with pain after each bang of an imaginary hammer it is in fact classic clownery: he has to rip off the hand he has already nailed up in order to nail down his foot, then there is a problem with his free hand and so on. After a long effort he is successful, makes a satisfied face and to make a point he bows his head “in a Christ way”. The introduction is crowned by the first repeat of the most entertaining refrain of the whole production: Tomáš Pokorný, in a shredded jacket, boots and with one white glove, a foxtail dangling around his neck, first flirts with the audience in a depravedly macho way and then starts to blare out patriotic verses in guttural voice while strongly gesticulating, with an expression that is half hamming and half threatening. In the end he once again grins broadly at the audience with an ordinarily handsome face, throws his crucified colleague across his shoulder and carries him off the stage (completely stiff, with arms spread out). The audience enjoyed it but at that point nobody could know that the following scenes would get tougher and their latently fascist tendencies and frightening manner would grow much stronger.
It is somewhat deceptive to try and construe images of this kind. In Wellness grotesquely dislocated entertainment is systematically mingled with erotic suspense, humiliation, cruelty and violence; however, this is no revelation as such a blend tends to be the rule in Uhlár’s productions (dislocation can be even literal when one of the actors improbably twists his arm behind his back while blood is dripping on him from above; a poem about a little frog born in a fine rain then blares out). However, several thematic story lines emerge clearly. Primarily religious and (less expectedly) nationalistic motifs continuously reappear. In contrast to the refrains of repeated shouted verses where urgency and aggression escalate, the religious setting is incorporated in more varied ways. Wellness could even be seen to take up where preceding Projectile left off: the production offers many more or less open references to Christ, with flogging and the washing of feet as well as the crucifixion already mentioned.
At the end of the performance the nationalist and religious lines come together: first Tomáš Pokorný yells out the lyrics of a folk song “There on Calvary the cross is standing, Jesus hangs upon it” (the verse “drops of blood from his body are pouring on the earth” can be read as a hint to the blood constantly dripping from the canvas into the basin) and a moment later he deals with the Lord’s Prayer in the same way, only this time on his knees. At the very end the production approaches the same finishing tape from the other side. Martin Kollár, who has appeared in all scenes evoking Christ, comes on wearing high military boots (the same as worn by his nationalist colleague). To be more precise, he is brought in, because he is now like a rag doll devoid of will. The tantalizingly clad Michaela Halcinová washes his feet in the model of Mary Magdalene but in a basin of blood and three gentlemen accompany her with lesser known lyrics from the song, the first stanza of which forms the Slovak national anthem (they deliberately keep to a simple but deeply felt unison). To the following verse “He who feels Slovak, let him seize a sabre” Halcinová guides the lifeless man to the proscenium and places a giant sabre into his hand. It is a plastic one (to the amusement of the audience it later starts emitting coloured lights) but that does not add anything to the substance of the closing scene. Primarily it comes over as a rather anxious mockery of the nationalist fight for the native country in which even faith can be misused, but with a bit of exaggeration the ending could be understood as the exact opposite, almost in the spirit of Čapek’s Mother: it is high time for those who are still silent and beaten not to let themselves be completely diminished without any resistance (Blaho Uhlár expressed himself in exactly this way in an interview on Slovak TV). In any case it is symptomatic that Stoka managed to avoid unambiguousness (I even dare suggest claim that they help the issue) even in such a seemingly obvious case, only overturning threats into simple agitprop.
Although nationalist-religious scenes clearly make up the axis of Wellness, the production is not limited to them. As usual, there is also a place for many actions which are innocent in themselves – if we do not let ourselves be disheartened by cruel and cynical humour. The major advantage is that even these scenes are related to the central theme, although perhaps indirectly. It is clearly visible particularly in passages based in cosmopolitan English and quotes from contemporary pop-culture (and here the influence of those ensemble members who are in their twenties is more than obvious). In a way they offer the very opposite to a musty, encapsulated Slovak reality; but it is not particularly nice either, perversions and depravity only acquire a different form. “I’m a nympho / I love my mommy / and my daddy / and my dildo”, quotes Lenka Libjaková from the lyrics of a rather pornographic song by the American-Israeli dubstep producer Borgore; provocation is accompanied by scenes of enforced striptease and rape after which, however, the girl let herself to be carried away in a close embrace whispering: “I love you so much, you’re my hero.” You should not however imagine a naturalistic spectacle; like other scenes with an erotic or violent background this passage too achieves an impossibly cold distance and the performers maintain neutral, even insipid expressions. And in a principle of contrast, sexuality and violence go hand in hand with classic nobility, something which is also characteristic of Stoka: a series of scenes in which both women are humiliated is accompanied by a composition where the delicate cembalo dominates.
No matter how tempting it is to seek connecting lines and relations to the central theme, there are also scenes that are just “peculiar”, whose meaning consists rather in the thickening atmosphere (which after all corresponds to a method of free improvisation without any prior set theme). This is the case with the series of strange educational or examination scenes in which Braňo Mosný (with a prominent paper nose and a white coat over his naked body) repeatedly forces his miserably hard-working colleagues to fall to the ground in the right way or to collect scattered nails while a “commission” composed of the rest of the performers follows their futile effort with a dispassionate but derisory attitude. Or singing sections in which men with cycling safety strobe lights in their mouths mumble Cohen’s Hallelujah into the darkness (I must admit that I was genuinely pleased by the disrespectful treatment of this now unpleasantly well-worn hit). And also in a scene where – perhaps in pay-off for the preceding scene of rape – for a change men are subjects of humiliation. One after another they arrive naked on the stage where Lenka Libjaková first flips their private parts and then slaps them. However, the men seem to quite enjoy it, form a circle and can’t wait for another flip and slap.
In any case it is true that Wellness is the most balanced piece of the three discussed here. In theatrical terms it is also the most polished, and it is the most thematically and formally concise. It is also proof that Uhlár’s poetics are inspirational and viable even after thirty years.
■ In terms of form the production entitled Re re re… is another typical Uhlár series of separate but thematically loosely linked sketches. The structure of short scenes is similar as in Projectile; the performance space is emptied after each act (or it gets dark) and recorded music begins to play. The “auditorium” is separated from the “stage” by plastic tapes and that is all in terms of scenography. There are no props and the visual element is limited to costumes made up of various strips and ribbons. They look a bit amateurish and at the same time old-worldly. This impression is also underlined by smoothly facile hits from between the wars that are played during the breaks between scenes and also before the performance begins. All six performers alternate throughout the performance between variations of two basic settings: a grotesquely stylized effusiveness stands in contrast to slightly naive, sometimes almost elementarily illustrative characters who are seemingly unaware of the brutality and cynicism of their lines. The actors’ actions often do not add anything substantial to the words, performers “just” present what is already contained in them. Gruesome things which are said and performed here thus quite often seem like a slightly divergent, peculiar conversation. An annotation from the Stoka website is nevertheless very specific about this: “Speech is already incomprehensible, characters embark again and again on pseudo-dialogues solving nothing. They are bound to the environment with their anxieties and phobias /…/ Dear God, what else waits for us?”
The things discussed are in significant contrast with the naive “visuals”. “You are adopted /…/ You’ve got cancer,” a Father tells his Daughter straight away in the opening “Christmas” scene, then saying that from now on she cannot live in her room for free. “You can pay us two hundred fifty plus energy costs.” The father talks at length, with a lot of frills and rhetorical padding, he laughs incessantly (“like an arsehole”, according to a scenic comment). But the acting is neither dramatic nor psychological. Michaela Halcinová smiles diffidently, Martin Kollár is jovially friendly, but this does not prevent him from throwing more and more items on an imaginary pile of dirt. And when it seems that cynicism has reached its peak, the Mother enters (played in the style of farces by Peter Tilajčík in female dress) and her first sentence is: “Mishka, do not bargain with Daddy. We already agreed that we do not want you here.” It is also characteristic that the scene does not come to any point, but rather eventually dissolves in its own awkwardness.
Unlike the relatively changeable and inestimable Wellness, Re re re… often returns to the principle of one scene – one motif. However, a basic situation is often very carefully polished to absurdity, far beyond the borders of “measure” or “a good taste”. It is symptomatic that while in Wellness something like a visual refrain was created by relatively noble blood, here the artists reached as deep as possible: repeatedly returning to – if you’ll forgive the expression – shit. Sometimes it is only a fleeting allusion but quite often this motif is smeared with its full unpalatable splendour. The most extreme case is the scene in which a man first swallows a bunch of keys to prevent his partner leaving, then he shits the keys out and cleans them by licking, at which his colleague comments: “Now they will at least be better greased.” This could of course be taken as a trashy joke but it is more important that another facet is added to the principle of awkwardness.
Looking further at the differences between Re re re… and the related Projectile it is clear that the new production is noticeably more straightforward and in a way also more consistent. For example, in the older piece drugs are discussed in the context of a more or less feasible story about a visit to a music festival; but here we get right to the core. Tomáš Pokorný lists various kinds of narcotics and how they are used and Lenka Libjaková responds mechanically like a bored, puppet-like, little girl whiningly snapping: “No,” or only “ahahah” (occasional exchanges such as: “You can go to a disco. / But without Ecstasy? / Fuck.” are the only exception). Dull facial expressions, short primitive sentences, not coming to any conclusion, round and round. But everything then comes to a point: out of the blue the girl pulls herself together and leaves and the man is taken aback: “Fuck! Alone here again. What kind of stuff was it?”
Punchlines appear repeatedly in Re re re…, whether concluding an unexpected aside or after a more traditional model. For example when after a long scene in which the girl relentlessly rejects down a proposal, she declares that she cannot marry her suitor because she is his sister. Or in an almost Beckettian scene where a boy and girl examine their situation and the girl must support him to stop him falling –literally (from the conversation it seems this has been the case for several years). However, when “The Faller” comments that their love has faded, “The Holder” mercilessly lets him fall and leaves. It can be taken as a joke or a tool to interrupt pointlessly repetitive dialogues but almost without exception it is obvious that the more open the developments are the better it is: when the dialogue is too excitedly ambiguous and the atmosphere desperately depressing, the point tends to get lost in mere funny sketches.
An even bigger problem arises when parody or satire begin to emerge too clearly, in positions commonly avoided by Stoka. A scene of an audition with an annoying singer and a bored panel gives the impression of being from some other play. However, the unequivocally weakest scene of the whole production is a sad disintegration of a typical Stoka situation: two womanish hipsters start off criticising each other for not pressing the “like” button at an entry and they gradually go through all the possible commonplaces for this environment, particularly displacing a real experience of the world with a virtual one.
Significantly stronger are those scenes presenting intense awkwardness and wretchedness in general. It is characteristic of Re re re… that these scenes are quite often prolonged – undoubtedly intentionally – to an almost unbearable length. There are no short acts or blackouts here. Perhaps the most typical example is a belligerent meeting between “a native” and a pair of “intruders”. Tomáš Pokorný in combat boots and a shepherd’s hat recalls an earthy nationalist character from Wellness, Martin Kollár and Braňo Mosný counter with peculiarly twisted skipping figures; all three continuously swear at each other, wave their hands, threaten each other boasting that they will fly at each other at the first opportunity (picturesque lines include, “Such a twat! I’ll peel you off like a poster, fuck.”) but nothing happens. It can be seen for example as true nationalists on one hand and stupid hip-hoppers on the other, but the strength of the scene lies in the fact it does not capture any particular adversaries but creates an exaggerated picture of the wretchedness of miscellaneous boastful disputes and (not only) verbal fights.
Something similar is also the case for the closing Beckettian scene in which three characters are staring out from behind strip-barriers (an action that is often through the performance) and watching suspicious falling snowflakes of uncertain origin – and then all three of them lose their vision. The girl loses her sight after the snowflakes fall into her eyes, then she herself pokes out one colleague’s eyes whereupon the last of the three blinds himself in order not to have to care about blind persons. It would be of course ridiculously naive to expect a benign look at the world from Blaho Uhlár or an optimistic or forgiving ending but the hopeless commonplace dullness of Re re re…’s outstrips both previous productions: it is like a total nihilism of ordinary life.
Stoka: Projectile, directed by Blaho Uhlár, audio-visual solutions Martin Burlas, art solutions Markéta Plachá, Stoka Theatre Bratislava, premiere October 28, 2016
Stoka: Wellness, directed by Blaho Uhlár, art solutions Markéta Plachá, Stoka Theatre Bratislava, premiere December 19, 2016
Stoka: Re re re…, directed by Blaho Uhlár, art solutions Miriam Struhárová, Stoka Theatre Bratislava, premiere June 30, 2017
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 6, volume 2017
translated by Ladislav Šenkyřík
) Jakub Škorpil wrote about this in his essay The Attempt (eWAT II).