The Theatre of Discomfort

 
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Dead Dog at
Dry Cleaners: the Strong
by Angélica Liddell
directed by Angélica Liddell
Schaubühne Berlin 
Berlin
 

Angélica Liddell’s Dead Dog at Dry Cleaners: the Strong opens this year’s Festival International Neue Dramatik (FIND) at the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in Berlin. The festival is composed of thirteen plays and continues until the ninth of April. For the second time Liddell presents a piece at the Schaubühne during FIND. The performance is the German Language première of Dead Dog and Liddell’s first time working with members of the Schaubühne’s ensemble.

 

It is undeniable that Liddell, who in addition to writing and directing Dead Dog also designed the stage scenery and costumes, plays a pivotal role in the crafting of this production. She is well known in her home country of Spain not only for her work in the theatre, but also as a writer and performance artist. Held in high regard she is viewed by some as one of the most prominent directors in Southern Europe. In 1993 she founded the Atra Bilis Teatro with whom she has worked on over 20 international productions. In 2012 she was awarded the Premio Nacional de Literatura Dramática and in 2013 she received a Silver Lion at the Biennale in Venice.

 

Written over 15 years ago Dead Dog is a piece of political fiction taking place in a not quite unfathomable future where in the name of European security the continent has been purged of crime and immigrants.  Between a large copy of Fragonard’s painting ‘The Swing’ and a lush wall of flowers a large portion of the stage is occupied by a quadratic piece of earth upon which a layer of living grass and a sofa are placed. This alongside a noose and the oversized, crimson red German lettering of ‘dry cleaners’ is the world in which the production takes place. The psychologically dysfunctional figures of Gestemani (Iris Becher), a prostitute, Octavio (Ulrich Hoppe), her paranoid brother and owner of the dry cleaner; Lazar (Veronika Bachfischer), a former museum guard and Hadewijch (Lukas Turtur), a pedophile and school teacher, respond to the string-pulling figure of Combeferre (Renato Schuch) with seemingly absurdist conversation and action. The patchwork-like, ambiguous structure of the piece is punctuated by the ranting and scolding figure of the Dog, performed by the ever so severe Damir Avdic.

 

This show actively and knowingly challenges its audience members. As Liddell herself puts it in an interview with Joseph Pearson, “I want to undermine their sense of comfort. Often, culture is a comfortable place, and the artist – in this case, the buffoon – is charged with smashing that comfort.” The Dog, a self proclaimed “professional madman” and “shitty actor”, is prone berating the audience calling them hypocrites, egoists, and cowards.  At one point the entire production is stopped, the house lights are brought up, and those audience members who are inclined to leave are told to do so. The cast onstage then stare-down those that decide to depart before leaving the stage themselves. They do not return for several minutes and those still in the audience are left wondering if they should laugh, applaud, or also leave because the production has ended.

 

The theme of this year’s festival is “Democracy and Tragedy.” Whether or not the piece is truly tragic is left open to interpretation. The production lasting nearly three hours and without intermission is from this audience member’s point of view uncomfortable, exhausting and, at times, unintentionally comical.  The over-stylized blocking often reads as unmotivated choreography and the frequent allusions to French cultural history, especially the political theory of the “Social Contract of Rousseau,” come across as heavy-handed and forced. Certain scenes seem to be more like pieces of performance art rather than building blocks of any greater dramatic structure.  Those individuals who enter the theatrical house without any prior knowledge of the convoluted and disjunctive plotline may very well fail to reach any understanding of the piece. 

 

In spite of its shortcomings, however, the production’s collage-like, performative-literary structure is truly viscerally moving and demandingly thought provoking. It is unyielding in its attempts to challenge the worldview of its audience members and bursting with dramatic potential.  Although the methodology used to reach it may be questionable, the end result was that of a theatre-going public not only actively wrestling with the structure of democracy and their own role within it, but also the socially critical role of the theater. 

Michael Veale

photos | ©Gianmarco Bresadola