General 9-16-2003

Performance Review: Carmen Funebre (Funeral Song)

When the Teatr Biuro Podrózy of Poland did their outdoor performance on themes of war, Jakki Spicer was there. She discusses the work with Sonja Kuftinec, a theater professor at the U of M. The performance was sponsored by the Guthrie Theater.

Teatr Biuro Podrózy’s Carmen Funebre (Funeral Song) makes a dangerous proposition. Both “based on the testimonies of the Bosnian conflict” and striving to “tell the universal story of war and the human tragedy that inevitably accompanies it,” the performance attempts to encompass both the particular and the general. And this isn’t the only line it straddles: it promises risk, while flanked by safety implements; it offers “alternative” outdoor space (the New Guthrie Theater site) that is as disciplined as the old Guthrie itself; it suggests the audience will be both delighted by the spectacle and chastened by its message.

Teatr Biuro Podrózy (which translates as Travel Bureau Theater), a Polish theater company, has been touring this show since 1993, when it was first performed. It was originally based on the Bosnian war, but was rewritten in 1994, following the troupe’s interaction with survivors of this conflict. Although the name of the company was originally meant to be metaphorical, signaling the “travel” that takes place while watching a theater performance, it turns out that the choice of name for the company has become quite apt. Carmen Funebre has toured the world, from Edinburgh to Mumbai to Philadelphia, and now, Minneapolis.

The production is mounted out of doors, in the space that will eventually be occupied by the new Guthrie Theater. Currently, it is little more than an empty parking lot surrounded by shiny new chain-link fence and flanked by a few porta-potties. But the downtown Minneapolis skyline is its western backdrop, the Mississippi River its northern border, and the combination of these elements is not without its own drama. After passing through a makeshift lobby, lined by fence and complete with tented box-office, the audience is gathered around three sides of a stage defined only by black cables lain along the cement ground. Industrial-primitive (and therefore, presumably, “alternative”) though it may be, the division between the audience and the actors is unquestionable.

The performance begins as two masked centurion-like figures emerge from out of the distant dark with miner’s searchlights and walking on stilts. They come from behind the audience and walk through their ranks as they approach the space, road-warning-orange skirts floating about their stilt legs. They pace the stage, pointing the butts of their bullwhips into the audience and pulling out individuals, who prove to be members of the troupe. Once selected, these actors run frantically around the stage and along the edge of the audience, attempting to escape the flick and snap of the whips. There is a moment of tension, here: the audience feels implicated in the scene, both wanting to let the actors in and unsure if this is the right thing to do. And yet, the performers never meet the gaze of the audience. There is no eye contact, and thus the possibility of the audience participating in this scene is diminished, if not nullified. It becomes clear that, once the performers have emerged from the crowd, the line between stage and spectator is firmly redrawn.

In fact, despite all its attempts to walk the precarious space between one thing and another, Carmen Funebre seems most adept at drawing clear distinctions. The forces of war in the production —the centurions, Death, the destitute war wounded—are all stilt walkers. They are not only larger than life, super-human, but also masked, other.

Sonja Kuftinec, a theater professor at the University of Minnesota who also works with Balkan youth to develop theater, had some very specific concerns about Carmen Funebre. As she points out, what made the Bosnian conflict so particularly horrific were the terrible acts that were committed by neighbors against neighbors, friends against friends. Evil did not arrive from elsewhere, coming in on stilts with masked faces, but from within—within one’s neighborhood, one’s community, oneself. The familiar and comforting was transformed into the dangerous and fatal. Victims could just as easily be—and often were—perpetrators.

Especially when we are inundated by war pundits like George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld with this same splitting of the world into good and evil, we need to be reminded that violence is possible everywhere, from within anyone. Georges Bataille claimed that evil is tolerated and disseminated by pretending that human beings are not capable of evil, by the retelling of the fable that evil only comes from monsters and devils, even if in apparently human form. As Kuftinec noted, contemporary events are more often than not made meaningful through melodramatic formations—good versus evil—instead of tragic ones, in which individuals hold themselves responsible for the hubris of their own actions. Thus we are relieved of our own responsibility to anything but vanquishing the (evil) other.

Furthermore, while the production seems to attempt to overcome certain abstractions made commonplace by contemporary media, it merely replaces simulacra with manufactured affect. The piece does access the audience’s senses. One smells the wine spit onto a suffering woman, one feels the heat of the fire, or shivers in the chilly night air. And the backdrop of the downtown Minneapolis skyline, of the stuttering Gold Medal Flour neon sign, act to localize the performance, to position these visceral responses within a familiar setting.

The Twin Cities, indeed, is an interesting place to bring a performance about the “universal story of war,” considering such a growing portion of the population is comprised of refugees from war-ravaged countries like Vietnam, Somalia, and Sierra Leone. In such a context, though, Carmen Funebre does more to remind us that war, and the experience of war, is specific. The imagery of the piece is resolutely European—even Eastern European. From the guards clad like Roman soldiers to the Christian iconography to the stovepipe hearth symbolizing home, this is a war recognizable through a western history. While terror, rape, and displacement may be general effects of war, geographic, cultural and political differences mean they look, feel, and act differently, one from the other. One walks away from this performance with no better idea of what causes any particular war, of why it happens. Only that it is, indeed, bad.

It has been said that art that can make a political difference must confuse that which we thought we already knew – it must provide the space to think alternatives to current conditions. “Art,” the theorist Theodor Adorno said, “is a matter of…resisting the course of the world.” And yet, Kuftinec notes, to produce a work of art that can tour internationally for ten years, that is accessible to an audience, to an audience willing to pay $28 per ticket and stand in the rain for over an hour, it must be both familiar and novel. Carmen Funebre is intriguing to watch, even moving. But it is presented as an art object, as a production of aesthetic achievement. The pleasure of its spectacle always overwhelms its political thrust; it brings to mind comparisons with Cirque de Soleil.

This is a talented troupe, who have mounted a successful production. The moment it ends, there is no space left to doubt this: the audience commences with its clapping and cheering; the actors return running for yet another bow. And while there is certainly nothing amiss with this, the problem is that the production masks its own contradictions, conflating visual pageantry with political intervention. As muted and reverent spectacle, it both provides aesthetic pleasure and satisfies some vague sense of fulfilling political responsibility in the watching. Carmen Funebre’s real danger is in attempting to have it both ways.