‘Fighting illusion with barking’ by Matko Botić (Kulisa.eu, magazine for culture and performing arts)

Breaking the sweet and comforting theatrical illusion, that necessary condition of a metropolitan theatrical supply, was rarely done so convincingly and honestly as in the new play by Borut Šeparović, performed on the Scene Travno of the Zagreb Puppet Theater in New Zagreb. Šeparović and Jasna Žmak, the dramaturgist, conveyed on stage the exceptionally meditative prose of Paul Auster named Timbuktu, in which a number of existential dilemmas so common in the society we live in ensue within the simple story of a dog who is robbed of his beloved owner. Timbuktu is not a novel about the life of a dog, the animal is only there to ensure a fresh look upon old dilemmas to the recipient by dislocating the viewpoint, in the manner of the best fables.
The dog, Mr. Bones, Croatized as Kosta, lives a modest but happy existence with an ailing homeless person Willy, who treats him as his equal. Willy is halfway between a hobo and a prophet, and truly loves his best friend and companion in his aimless wandering across America. The central problem of the novel/play arises from the consequences of Willy’s inevitable death; Kosta is impelled to cohabit with his new owners, who freely groom him, castrate him, change his name and rob him of every mode of freedom possible – in exchange for a full stomach. This question of the relationship between social conformism and free choice is additionally tapered by the Lassiesque canine character, whose innocent guise offers an additional dimension to the problematization of personal freedoms.
In searching for the modes of transfer of prose into theater, Šeparović decided to use an interesting performing expression. Most of the time the stage is occupied only by a beautiful border collie, Cap, who extremely obediently performs the simple orders his coach gives him from the first row. His concentrated gaze into the audience is seen also by the actor Sven Medvešek, who synchronizes the canine thoughts from the back of the audience, thus building a (mono)dramatic structure in which the trained Cap is a dazzlingly vital visual subject with his warm eyes, completed by the acted auditive support. The minimal movements of the dog in symbiosis with the actor’s soliloquy result in a dramatic expression that is in every moment completely artificial in its structure, but also deeply vital.
Šeparović’s play with emotions and the thin line between illusion and reality is sharpened by the culmination in which there are twelve mixed-breed dogs behind an iron curtain, the real protagonists of the story about which the pedigree actor Cap needs not worry. The circle is closed when real homeless men show up on the steps of the auditorium, whose faces lacking the least bit of pretence strike the final blow to the already dazed theatrical illusion, creating an entirety that constructs its convincing-ness on the very transfusion from Medvešek’s acting frolic into the harsh reality of dog shit, which like a zany set design intervention stinks from the stage.
The greatest problem of Timbuktu is Šeparović’s completely unconvincing persistence on portraying America as the main culprit for every problem. America is guilty because we are poor and miserable, if there were no America we would all have it better, and so Cap must, in the best social realism tradition, pull down the American flag to the floor, just in case someone in the audience missed the point. The subtlety of the fine game around the elusive fluid between reality and theatrical illusion is completely unnecessarily demeaned by an almost adolescent search for a scapegoat and the literal drawing of a political slogan, whose antagonists could just as well be found in our own back yard. If one must reach for a flag, there were closer and more precise combinations of red, white and blue.
The greatest burden in the performance was carried by Sven Medvešek, who at first stiffly and coldly recites Kosta’s story, but as the play goes on, Medvešek’s intonation becomes more and more convincing and lively. The acting peak of the play is certainly the irresistible interplay between Medvešek and Vili Matula, who appears in a cameo role of his namesake, Kosta’s deceased owner. Medvešek is in on the proscenium in those moments, and he can add the extremely precise facial expression of canine concentration and love to his acting arsenal, while deus ex Matula explains in an intimate scene that it is never too late to go to Timbuktu.
Šeparović’s Timbuktu is a true refreshment in Zagreb’s theatrical offer, despite the overly shaded and imprecisely pointed political stings, and as such has its place in the corps of the modern theatrical questioning of the limits between illusion and reality. Unfortunately, Timbuktu is almost too squalid a play for Croatian notions, literally and metaphorically. The extremely precise ending of the play in which several members of a cleaning crew devotedly clean the scene with wet rags and try to neutralize the dog stench with air fresheners, also invokes the fate of the play and its protagonists. The scene is now once again ready for the real theater, while the protagonists of the wrong one go off into an uncertain future it is most polite not to mention in theater.

© Matko Botić: Psećim lavežom protiv omamljujuće iluzije , KULISA.eu, October 18th, 2008

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