The Northern Quarter of Nowhere

vanwarmerdamAlex van Warmerdam: The Northern Quarter
Vortex Theater Company

The American premiere of the Dutch play The Northern Quarter by Alex van Warmerdam has its moments. Director Erwin Maas describes this production as a “funny, yet intensely painful” journey, “magical and absurd, yet frighteningly real.” Unfortunately, for the most part, it seems neither frightening nor real.

The play focuses on Faas, a young man who lives at home with his parents, apparently in the “northern quarter” of some city or bordering area (since the city itself is a fearful place his parents refuse to let him visit). Faas spends the whole 90 minutes of stage time trying to escape his stifling parents in order to actually experience life.

The approach is surreal, with allegorical characters and symbolic incidents tracing a kind of Everyman on a journey, which mostly consists of tiny adventures in self-discovery (mildly comic in character, since at various times Faas announces that he is 43 or 45 or 49, making the whole ongoing parental control issue quite ludicrous). The play at times veers in the direction of an Alice in Wonderland world where Faas seems doomed to eternal boyhood despite his puny attempts at rebellion.

What works in this off-off-Broadway production is the acting (not brilliant, but mostly satisfying). The cast is young and energetic; the lead, Dave Gueriera as Faas, plays the endlessly youthful searcher with a moving innocence. The costumes by Oana Botez-Ban are artful and effective. The conclusion, which involves a video conversation between Faas and his recently deceased father, is technically and emotionally compelling. The final act of Faas is to run from the stage, up through the audience, and apparently out the door of the Sanford Meisner Theater onto 11th Avenue (anyway, we hear traffic sounds). The exit is theatrically effective, suggesting a real escape from the tight square that represents his home, and the whole absurd reality that has been his life. He breaks free even of the theatre, and we are all liberated.

That said, the production is a hodge-podge of techniques and styles--masks, bits of music, symbolic characters, choral speech--all vaguely avant-garde and ultimately quite tedious. The problem would seem to lie in two places: The text of the play is extremely repetitive, and the directing can be heavy-handed and just plain misguided, as for example having characters on stage with guitars who play minimal music badly. Either get real musicians or get rid of the guitars.

Of course, off-off-Broadway productions generally work with a very limited budget and short rehearsal period; it is possible that a more luxuriously funded production of The Northern Quarter would yield more exciting theatre. But somehow, I doubt it. The story has been told too many times; the Oedipal theme is too endlessly exhausted; and the crushing role of parents and society in limiting our creative lives was surely a cliché of 20th century theatre. If the whole play had the power of the final four minutes--where the use of video really worked--it would be a different story. - Victoria Sullivan

The Northern Quarter runs through January 22: Thurs & Sat @ 8pm / Sun @ 2pm
Sanford Meisner Theater
164 Eleventh Ave (Between 22nd & 23rd)
New York City

victoria.jpgMs. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding or laughing, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees.