‘Timbuktu’ by Igor Ružić (Kazalištarije, Croatian Radio – channel 3)

Even though theater might be trying hard to convince its audience – but most of all itself – that it is socially engaged and aware of the moment it is happening in, and to which, or at least that is what it claims, reacts to, Croatian theater is an example that the truth is altogether different. Finding examples in which it truly reacted to the moment is no easier than finding an opposite example, where reality answered to theater, and that is the paradox that both the domestic stage and its repertoire bear on account of their audience and their own relevance. Between the satires that really aren’t that and the actualization of classics, that precisely by being classics are our contemporaries (so no modernization is needed, but is done exclusively for egotism and narcissism of directing-dramaturgical cliques), exceptions almost as a rule occur outside of institutions, on the edges of the official culture and theater as its constitutive – even though, says the modern mantra, less truly important – part. On the edginess of phenomena in Croatian theater, that is their centrality in the sense of quality, the modes of theatrical thought and the issues dealt with, way too many words were spent, and to again prove that the edge of Croatian theater is actually its center would be a disgrace for all those who don’t find theater in Croatia a total unknown. The edge, however, gained a new meaning in the newest production of Montažstroj – once a performance group and today a brand, in which Borut Šeparović signs his performance productions. Timbuktu, a play written on the basis of Paul Auster’s novel, is the first play truly envisaged for the, up until a year or two, disgracefully unused stage in the International Center for Cultural Services in the New Zagreb area of Travno, run by the Zagreb Puppet Theater. Scene Travno is thus no longer a destination where the city theaters are almost punished into putting in guest appearances, but a thoroughbred theatrical space prepared to keep attracting audiences from probably the most densely populated, but culturally – in resource and program – completely derelict part of the so-called metropolis. Instead of yet another unsuccessful inscenation of the most popular fairy-tales or children literature classics, the likes of which are produced by the Zagreb Puppet Theater, Borut Šeparović and Montažstroj offered the audience in Zagreb and New Zagreb a project with extreme social charge, critical and political in its essence, as well as seductive in performance.
“A monologue for a dog on stage and an actor in the audience” is only nominally a play about humans and dogs. Timbuktu is actually exclusively a story about humans, in which dogs are only a metaphoric conveyer – attractive, cute and necessary, but not decisive. The inversion is expected and logical, because just like Paul Auster did not want to write a book about dogs, Šeparović did not want to direct a play about animals, even though the basic incentive for it were his dog and his young daughter. Timbuktu is hence one of the rare plays in domestic repertoires meant for the younger audience, older children and adolescents, although, as any quality production, it does not limit its potential viewers with that determinant.
Even though it was never a company that would perform a dramatic script literary or play a dramatization of prose without interpretation, Montažstroj did perform quite a respectable alternative reading in the two decades of its activity: from Heiner Müller, through August Strindberg, Sylvia Plath and Danilo Kiš to Paul Auster, and even Sarah Kane, even though Crave was a project Šeparović did not want to sign or brand as the work of Montažstroj, but only with his own name. Timbuktu is thus not the first prose that became a Montažstroj play, but it is the first novel, which is not irrelevant for the development of the text treatment on the dramaturgical and finally the performance level. While the ‘Encyclopedia of the Dead’ by Danilo Kiš was only an attempt at setting up a verbal, and no longer a physical or iconic communication with the viewers, and the poem ‘Three Women’ by Sylvia Plath served only as a working hypothesis for developing and fixating a performance that uses the human body and the object in the play ‘Terrible Fish’, in case of ‘Timbuktu’ it is formally Montažstroj’s first decision to work with a novelesque form.
Although Auster’s novel is the confession of a dog, focused on the relationship with his man and the emancipation after his death, it is also a simple metaphor which – aside from touching upon the relationship between animals (specifically dogs) and humans – actually speaks, through the relationship of humans toward dogs, about the relationship of humans toward – other humans. This double distance is what Auster implements in his text only later, when his narrative dog voice, after the death of an artistically enthusiastic homeless alcoholic, first becomes a dog without a master himself, in a way a homeless dog, and then experiences the conventional lives of humans and dogs and realizes, to utterly simplify, that the freedom of choice has no price – even if the price is life itself. Several levels of Auster’s dog writing was translated into a theater synopsis by dramaturgist Jasna Žmak and Borut Šeparović, whose idea that a dog really should be played by a dog significantly alleviated the representative effect of the play, and gave it many other advantages as well.
Among the formal advantages is the systematic gliding of the actor in the audience toward the stage, which develops along with his monologue. In the beginning Sven Medvešek is in the audience, only lending his voice from the dark, over a microphone, to a trained dog named Cap who is on stage, the two of them together impersonating a dramatic character named Mr. Bones in Auster’s novel and Kosta in the Croatian translation. As the play develops, he becomes more and more visible, in order to show up on stage along with his dog alter ego. However, as the illusion is destroyed, if it ever even existed, the actor turns from a storyteller into a protagonist, while simultaneously growing into what he never could have been at the beginning – human or dog, all the same. One of the postulates of this play is that a dog – in that learnt phrase, also man’s best friend – today might be the only mythological being the Western culture will assort to. As such, he is one fourth human, and Timbuktu demonstrates it – through Sven Medvešek who really starts to function better, even in the sense of acting, when he adds some barking, walking on all fours, friendly sniffing of his colleague’s intimates or discursive slips to the cold monologue, through which the theatrical game of representations becomes once again a confession.
That is when “Timbuktu” becomes a convincing story about freedom and liberation, about the difference between a situation where there is a collar around ones neck, in addition to an always full fridge, and the other, when a paper bag floating in the wind can also be art, instead of just garbage. Poetical – a little and maybe – but worth living. Or not, if one decides differently and accepts to be, as they say, arrested by life. That is the real story of Timbuktu, and of the Timbuktu as a metaphoric opposite to what today is not only Auster’s America, but also all those Americas lived by the focused, disciplined and neoliberal world. Hence, the one Croatia is, one way or another, already a part of.
The play is only a part of the action, or project, through which Šeparović attempts to extract the theater out of the theater hall, as well as to introduce reality into it, in a significantly more concrete manner than sheer representation. Even though it is theatrical, Timbuktu is also a socially engaged project with an almost humane goal, because it was created in close collaboration with the Shelter for Abandoned Animals in Dumovec, the so-called city pound. Borut Šeparović likes to brag that this is by far his most extensive production and, in the number of participants, the biggest project in Croatia, because twelve homeless dogs, along with their so-called leaders, but really volunteers from the Dumovec Shelter, participate in the play. Along with them, as the most important part of the entire project, there are a dozen of real homeless people from Zagreb, all of which creates a basis for what makes Timbuktu different from yet another item on the domestic repertoire, and into a theatrical act that surpasses the usual interpretation of theater as the game about the world and its ability for change. Timbuktu reacts to that old thesis by Brecht, not by striping down reality in theater, but by conveying it into the theater. This, of course, is not yet the end of the game about the variability of the world but it is, to put it in terms of modern computer games, its crossing into the next, significantly higher level.
When reality in this way overflows the border of theater, even though it is usually the other way around, Timbuktu stops being a play and becomes a performance. Among the quality decisions Šeparović had to make in his work, is the one not to introduce his address-less associates into the play, because he did not show them but instead display them – making them only more noticeable and visible. This is probably the most that is allowed by ethics, because it is the last step before the level of exploitation – of both the reality and the humans. The domestic, real homeless people from Zagreb’s shelters, of course, play themselves in Timbuktu, which is why they do not need to act. They do nothing aside from being, and not even on the stage but in the audience – but not by sitting alongside the audience, which might have been an interesting experiment of social awareness, elementary decency and so-called civilized taste. On the contrary, the homeless first just stand alongside the walls of the theater, with their eyes on the floor or the stage, as if careful not to meet the gazes of those whose primary role is to look at them, since they are a part of the play. The audience, however, only partially notices them, and some stage-fixated viewer doesn’t even realize how different the situation symbolically turned with the entrance of these twelve others, and that the theatrical so-called ramp opened just as the iron net separated the space between the relatively free dog (trained in his first role in the theater) and the homeless dogs (wards of the Shelter for Abandoned Animals). At the moment when all the dogs are on the stage and all the humans are in the audience, with addresses or without them, Timbuktu is no longer just a play-performance about dogs and homeless people, but a smart didactic toy meant for any generation. And regardless of how redundant, illustrative and even naive material might be found in the rest of it, this breach of convention and of an inherited way of thinking theater turns it into a breaking-point for a new, obviously strongly socially responsible, aware and engaged phase of Montažstroj.
It is, hence, not surprising that, to put it a little cynically – along with all the conceptual games it brings with it – Timbuktu is saturated with an adolescent (meaning, uncompromising) impulse for rebellion and provocation. This is seen best not so much in the most distinct and favorite scene when the dog brings down the flag of the United States of America, behind which it was previously hiding, but in the last scene, which gives the play a final critical tone. In this epilogue of a kind – after the story’s been told and after the human-dog protagonist said goodbye to the audience and life on this earth – cleaners enter the stage to remove all that the dogs were made to do by their physiology in those extraordinary circumstances, wash the stage floor and empty several doses of air freshener. In that, the production does its final double function: on the one hand, it accepts the world in which dogs, and many humans, are not allowed to stink, speak, and sometimes live, while on the other, it ironizes every attempt of disinfection, of both the living and the theater space. If the theater is a cage, as Paul Auster regards America to be, Montažstoj’s Timbuktu does not offer escapism, but an opportunity to open the doors of that mental cage for at least a moment. Which is why it is a huge mistake to shed a tear after it – for the humans or the dogs, all the same.


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