‘The training of rebellion, the rebellion of training’ by Petar Sarjanović (Zarez, cultural biweekly)
Perhaps dogs are forbidden from entering into the canine utopia just as they are forbidden from entering into theater, along with roller-blades and ice-cream?
LEAD 1: At the very end of the play Timbuktu we reach another conclusion about the theater as training, theater as directing, theater as a system of rules, theater as America, theater as a space of castration, theater as dog hell, a place where entrance for roller-blades, ice-cream and dogs is strictly forbidden.
LEAD 2: During the play I, completely unexpectedly, and due to the masterfully simple interaction between an actor and a director, Sven Medvešek and Mario Kovač, and their almost „surrogate“ performance of an extremely short conversation between the alive Mr Bones (Kosta) and Willy’s ghost, managed to notice the small spark of Tim-buk-tu, that illusive otherworldly canine (and human) ideal.
The revival of New Zagreb in the last several years became one of the main preoccupations of the city authorities – abandoned swamps are cultivated, new sports and recreational centers are created, conglomerations of stores labeled with English syntagms arise, the sweet-talkingly initiated projects of hosting cultural institutions, whose primary definition bypasses the fast-track profitability that seems to hold the leading position in the set of values of the designers of the city’s political fashion, are being finished reluctantly and lazily. This last example, the finishing of the Museum of Contemporary Art, has for a while been the subject of discussions and newspaper articles, but on the right side of Sava in Zagreb, there was a case, not even closely as infamous a year ago, regarding an unfinished and (again) in the short-term, unprofitable structure, this time a theater hall. For several years now there is a theater that took a long time to build, between a concrete plateau of the most populated Zagreb apartment building, the Mammoth, and a church, „created“ speedily by God’s hand (on what used to be a children’s park). Attempts of focusing the public attention to the fact that it was incomplete can be boiled down to mostly puppet plays, once under the direction of the International Center for Cultural Services (MCUK), the organizer of the International Puppet Theater Festival PIF, and also the organizer of the entire complex in Travno, whose main hall was unprepared for hosting plays, except in rare cases (if we remember Battle for Stalingrad directed by Rezo Gabriadze and performed as part of the second World Theater Festival). In the finally well arranged space, in the deep shade of the Mammoth, which obviously hid both the political intrigue surrounding the change in the theater’s leadership, as well as any larger media coverage of the opening of the new-old theater space a year ago, Montažstroj, one of the rare modern theater groups that can boast its own audience (three performances of The Theater You Deserve at ITD in Zagreb last year, were sold in advance) and a „good reputation“ about its theatrical youth, sets up its new project in cooperation with the Zagreb Puppet Theater as the new director of Scene Travno, named Timbuktu, and subtitled A monologue for a dog on stage spoken by an actor in the audience.
USA and T(im)B(uk)T(u)
If we think of the tales spun around the last few productions of Montažstroj, the already mentioned Theater You Deserve, and partly T-formance, the authors didn’t have to overly exert themselves advertising Timbuktu – in a very short period of time (even before the premiere) unstoppable rumors spread, which according to a snowball hear-say effect, became of enormous proportions after only a few interlocutor changes. This time, before the play itself, rumors had it there were stray dogs on stage and they were to be adopted by each spectator, and silent consternation was generated by the mention of Zagreb’s homeless, which were supposedly also to participate in the play, and a related association that this art will once again ask of us some form of psycho-physical exertion. The reality is actually completely different – a plastic bottle of Coca-Cola as a small present waits on the red seat in the newly designed hall, much like the multiplex movie theaters. All that along with the program book/poster for the play, an American flag folded military-style, undoubtedly point to the political now as a repeated focus of the authors (just like in previous projects, the concept and directing was done by Borut Šeparović, along with the dramaturgic help of the new Montažstroj member Jasna Žmak), inspired this time by Paul Auster’s novel. However, within the story of a homeless man and his dog which, situated in the audience and subsequently illuminated by a spotlight, the first „dog“ singular is expressed in a monologue by the actor Sven Medvešek, while on stage we observe the „mime“ of the dog, Mr. Bones (or in Croatian, Kosta), as the main character, who thus „emulates“ his canine life with and without his master Willy, his canine philosophy, canine religion and canine thoughts, America, that is, anti-Americanism, doesn’t figurate as a cheep political slogan, that would shake the „stale“ political attitudes of the audience in Zagreb, which is supposedly extremely unwilling to accept any theatrical experiments. The viewers, unlike the last two projects by Montažstroj, remain safely in their seats, which of course, doesn’t diminish in any way the high artistic range of their new play.
Completely opposite from the America depicred in the story through Santa Claus whom Willy looked like, and Mickey Mouse that bosses around a poor dog, and Disneyland that doesn’t welcome dogs, let alone dog cocktails, or mutts, or the American dream, which castrates Kosta out of its need for extreme cultivation, there exists a canine Eden with the mystical name of the African city of Timbuktu, or better yet Tim-buk-tu, a place some dogs go after their death, which is characterized by the ability of unbridled communication between a dog and its master. Even though the discovery of a universal language meant for exchanging thoughts with other, and traditionally understood, lower living creatures to us humans does not seem as a bait that would obligate us to do right in this world or as a reward worthy of being strictly reserved for the otherworldly, Tim-buk-tu stands as a realization of a dog’s deepest desire, where a form of becoming one with the universe, of melting with the divine self, occurs. On the other hand, the human aspiration for the divine, „the higher“ being or the Lord, is transponded into a canine perspective by Auster and Montažstroj – humans and dogs are, in a way, equalized in the „religious“ sense, in their aspiration to communicate with the unattainable. Thus, neither dogs nor humans are obviously not meant to communicate with their M/masters in this world, fate obviously intended for them a paradoxical existence – in Timbuktu’s text, dogs in this world are forever condemned to bark, and humans to talk; furthermore, dogs are, in Kosta’s philosophy, angels trapped in dogs’ bodies, which is easily proven in the simple reversion of the English word for dog into the word god.
Barking at Illusion
In this manner America and Tim-buk-tu in Montažstroj’s play are given as opposites between the need for false civility on the one hand and an intersubjective communication unbridled by language, on the other; between the seemingly perfect family living its (American) dream, but for which a master-less dog must yet be educated, whose movement must be limited by a chain, and whose sexual organs must be castrated, and an almost Utopian relationship between a homeless man and his dog where the master’s homelessness suddenly stops being an obstacle, and where the master-slave relationship transforms into one of friendship, where borders between the anatomies of two different living beings are lost. Tim-buk-tu and America as the difference between canine heaven and canine hell.
If we were naive before, due to the half-hour „communication“ between a dog on stage and people in the audience where, by the way, not a single „wrong“ or unplanned movement of Cap, the dog playing Kosta, happened, and we thought that maybe the theatrical act itself might be the earthly substitute for the unattainable ideal of the unobstructed conversation with a different being, that maybe the theater is Tim-buk-tu, Kosta asks himself the very opposite question, doubting in blasphemy into canine highest truths and divine-canine revelations – perhaps Tim-buk-tu is organized as a theater? Perhaps dogs are forbidden from entering into the canine utopia just as they are forbidden from entering into theater, along with rollerblades and ice-cream?
Perhaps Tim-buk-tu is nothing more than America, a strictly codified theater with its own rules, regulations and laws, where communication and understanding must be conducted through artificially created symbolic languages. The theater in this sense cannot play a utopian role, but only impersonate it, be a front, which falsely masks and hides completely opposite intentions.
The play Timbuktu after the initial half an hour, reserved for gentle sighs and cuddling looks of the audience meant for the lonely dog on stage, seems to grasp the fakeness of the theatrical illusion that incessantly attempts to surreptitiously disguise the conventions of its own functioning. On the other hand, one mustn’t forget that the uncovering of the conditions of the creation of a theatrical performance, and the penetration of the real into the sanctity of the closed system of artwork, here a theater play, has long since become the shaggy postulate of the postmodern or, to put it more precisely, post-dramatic theater. However, it seems to me that Timbuktu skillfully avoids the general and spent issues of the theatrical scene and manages to find its own uniqueness within a never more numerous domestic (and, I believe, wider) theatrical production.
Starting with Medvešek’s emphasis of orders that the dog on stage dutifully obeys („slowly“, „place“, „drink water“), followed by the entrance of the coach (Alen Mareković) from the audience where he sat in the front line and indicated the actions and movements that Cap was supposed to perform during the play, Timbuktu was obviously trying to emphasize an image of the theater which is completely opposite from the naive ideal of the mutually unproblematic communication, that is, of Timbuktu as a canine heaven that was presented in Kosta’s story. As the play continued, I spent less and less time swooning over how the speech of Sven Medvešek flows into Cap’s actions into a meaningful whole that entices the joyful reactions of the audience, and my attention was beginning to be captured by the movements of the coach’s hands, that is, the orders the dog was blindly obeying during the one and a half hours of performance. The steady canine gaze suddenly turned into a “robotic” one, and the loyal dog into a Pavlov’s dog, which performs even the basic functions of life, such as drinking water, feeding and barking, dependant on the coach’s, or in this case, the director’s whims. Like the kids which, while the audience is entering the theater, control their remote vehicles circling the somewhat confused Cap on stage from the back row, the reactions and actions of Timbuktu’s main protagonist, are forced by the pressing of a button on a remote control, even though there is always a possibility of refusing obedience to his Master. Montažstroj thus uncovers the theater as training, which is always under the threat of a possible rebellion. The theater as a permanent crossroad between directing and a never completely subduable body that is eager to resist.
In his copyright application to Paul Auster for using the novel Timbuktu as a textual template for Montažstroj’s new play, the group director, Borut Šeparović, also writes that within this project he is interested in the „breach of reality relating the conventional theatrical illusion“. This item in the letter is completely realized in the „controversial“ scene, causing out-of-theater whispers and rumors, in which twelve stray dogs currently accommodated in a kennel are brought on stage, while an equal number of homeless people from Zagreb are positioned in close vicinity of the audience. Like replicants forced to meet originals they were created from, the imaginary characters, the roaming Kosta and the homeless Willy, humans and dogs a text can only talk about in a „well tailored manner“, are through this act of directing faced with tangible people with first and last names and dogs of flesh and blood, whose life stories are quite present on their skin, branded by hunger, cold and alcoholism, as well as dog bites or kicks. According to some opinions, says Sven Medvešek, when the everyday climbs onto the stage and when the theater starts to bring in real people on the stage instead of actors, we are talking about „surrogates“ who should have no business on those boards. However, Timbuktu attempts to point to the opposite and manifest that the theater must not loose what makes its special by a profanisation of its own elements, but can build its uniqueness on those grounds.
Attempting to conjoin, conditionally put, the fictional and real level, emphasized by the fact that the members of „the breach of the real“ are the very members of, stereo-typically understood, lowest social class, the bums and carriers of rabies, puts into the foreground the procedure that must be done in order to „cross the ramp“, the difference between the stray dog in the pound and its counterpart on the stage, or the homeless man from a shelter in Heinzel Street and his fictional „fake“.
Even though the story about the illusory and real dimension of artwork prevents the theater with its specificity – the presence of real bodies on stage which defy being put into different fictional drawers – Timbuktu nonetheless emphasizes the separation between the whole work of art and the surrogate, lowly reality into the divide between the dog Cap, who only plays a stray, and dogs who really are strays, using an iron fence, which closes off the stage space and completely divides Cap from the other dogs, or between Mario Kovač playing Willy, while twelve homeless people really live that very story. Just like Kosta, in order to find his new masters, that is, a roof over his head and a constant source of food, must be „civilized“ by washing, scrubbing, muzzling, castrating, chaining and other acts and props, it is obvious that the other stray dogs from the play need the same procedure to take the place of the main actor. Even though we might have believed the illusion about the mixed (as Willy would put it, postmodern) origin of Cap during Timbuktu, we are finally introduced with his pedigree breed and his coach. With the fact that a mutt and a stray cannot play Kosta, because the rules of the game are „familiar“ only to trained dogs, the way the theater works once again reveals to be very similar to the training of pets, according to Montažstroj. The same way the American dream refines Kosta, the theater must first cleans the reality from unwanted elements, then civilize it, pack it and put a bow around it in order to put it up on stage – like the final scene in Timbuktu in which several employees of the kennel cleans and sterilizes the stage from the twenty-minute-long stay of unwanted elements, uncultured stray dogs which, opposite from the civilized Cap, obviously didn’t know all the rules and regulations of a theatrical institution, so they relieved the burdens of their bladders and bowels in that sacred space. Because, in order to climb up on stage there must be a certain knowledge that tells us, firstly, which actions are forbidden in theater, even if they are the functions of a living body and, secondly, how to perform the ones that are allowed – Cap’s barking is an order controlled by the coach and not, like with the other dogs, a spontaneous reaction to the endangerment of their personal space; the green commando and torn pants of Mario Kovač are a part of the theatrical or perhaps private costume, which is not exactly what the other homeless people are wearing; just like Iggy Pop might be able to afford signing Now I wanna to be your dog, wishing for a subdued position, to be (what else) but a dog, there are still those who are dogs in real life, that being not their choice, but their life’s destiny. So, at the end of the play, we once again reach the conclusion that the theater is training, the theater is directing, the theater is a system of rules, the theater is America, the theater is a castrating space, the theater is a canine hell, a place where entrance for roller-blades, ice-cream and dogs is strictly forbidden.
At the very end of this article in which I overly neglected to comment on the performance character of the play and bashfully avoided to express my personal enchantedness with certain exceptional scenes, in order to clear the reputation of the official romantic and incorrigible utopist, I must oppose my own pessimistic reading of Montažstroj’s noteworthy new project, and emphasize that during the play I, completely unexpectedly, and due to the masterfully simple interaction between an actor and a director, Sven Medvešek and Mario Kovač, and their almost „surrogate“ performance of an extremely short conversation between the live Kosta and Willy’s ghost, managed to notice the small spark of Tim-buk-tu, that illusive otherworldly canine (and human) ideal. The time for my theatrical atheism is obviously not quite here – the faith in the paranormal abilities of theatrical communication is still strong.
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- October 30, 2008 / 2:09 pm