Another Brilliant Ivo Van Hove Moment

ivo-van-hoveAs a fan of the directing of Ivo Van Hove, I had to go see Opening Night during its brief (and now finished) run at the BAM Next Wave Festival. Van Hove makes regular forays into the NY theater scene from his base in Europe. This time he brought a Dutch troupe, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, with him, and the piece is fascinating, based on a 1970s John Cassavetes film and created, according to Van Hove, from the film script alone; he never saw the movie. I like that. It justifies my review of his piece without having seen the movie, which, according to a discerning friend of mine, was totally without merit anyway.

Van Hove is of the deconstruction school of directing: tear something down to its most basic elements and then rebuild it without preconceived notions of how it is generally perceived (in the case of classic works such as Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler or Moliere’s The Misanthrope). What he achieves by this method is surprisingly new, post-modern, edgy visions, so much more engaging than standard revivals. He often uses music, video screens, simultaneous shooting of the work that is occurring on stage, as well as video shots from offstage -- say, in the dressing room area or outside the theater -- thus blurring the usual lines of demarcation between the event and the audience.

In the case of Opening Night, there is a further element of complexity. The play is performed in Dutch with super-titles on screens. Frankly, this was a bit of a problem for me: reading the text to understand what was going on made me have to take my eyes off the actors on stage (and they are brilliant actors), getting caught up in a race back and forth between screen and stage space. If it had been in English, I would have been freer to decide where I wanted my gaze to go. Nonetheless, Van Hove’s technique of multiple cameras shooting the event, and actors sometimes making entrances through the audience, has an effect of engaging us totally in the moment that is unusual in American theater, and goes well beyond the rather timid use of video that we generally see.

As to the play itself, it is about the final rehearsals for the opening of a new play by a female playwright, who has written about a woman on the edge of losing her sexual attractiveness, and all the fears and rages likely to attack her. The actress who plays the woman resents the role, disclaims its validity, and tries to convince the writer that she’s too young for the part, although she refuses to tell her age. The writer is a nervous 49-year-old, rather mocked in the play, and hardly someone one would wish to emulate.

So we have here a play about an actress in a play, being videotaped, and to add more layers, her ex-husband is acting in it; her director is a little afraid of her, and has tensions in his own marriage. Rehearsals keep breaking down. Everyone has his or her own agenda and psychological issues. Most, as is not rare in theater, have hungry egos, and basically scene after scene plays with the degree to which Myrtle, the lead actress (boldly and sensitively captured by Elsie de Brauw) is falling apart, freaking out, seducing, fainting, and otherwise histrionically engaging in the rehearsal process.

It is both serious and humorous. Do we deeply care about this actress’s crisis? I suspect not. There is too much of a circus-like atmosphere. Throw in a dead fan -- both adoring and hostile -- who comes on naked in one scene (where the actress is dealing with her demons -- this young woman seems to be one), and you get the idea that this is more like a Fellini event than a standard play where one identifies with the protagonist’s pain. Still, it is fine theater, performed with no intermission in one two-hour-and-twenty-minute binge. That we stay attuned for that long is a tribute to both the utterly focused actors and Van Hove’s vision.

Nonetheless, his Misanthrope struck me as more relevant. Maybe I’ve known too many self-involved, hysterical actors over the years. Still, I’m very glad that Van Hove is bringing work to the United States, and that both New York Theatre Workshop (where he did the Ibsen and the Moliere) and BAM have the wisdom to present him. We need his type of fierce, brilliant experimentation. In the current technical age, theater, like other traditional art forms, needs to undergo metamorphosis in order to stay alive. - Victoria Sullivan

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

Cassavetes Opening Night

The film Opening Night is not without merit. Gena Rowlands performance alone makes this movie a great American masterpiece, not to mention the presence of the great Ben Gazzarra and John Cassavetes himself. Your discerning friend is hardly that.

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