New Yorkers like to think they have the whole world in their city. And yet, up until this week, they still hadn’t seen the Belgian acting collective known as tg STAN. It’s shocking, or, in a less indignant vein, just proof of the stubbornly impermeable border that still separates European- and American-made performance. The Under the Radar festival gives reason to celebrate, however, with the long overdue arrival of one of the most respected and stylistically influential theater companies to come out of continental Europe in the past 25 years. There’s icing on the cake, too: STAN reprises one of its foundational productions with the original cast: JDX- A Public Enemy.
The current political and economic climate in Europe has proven a good time for giving Ibsen’s play a dusting off; STAN has chosen to tour the production in its native Flanders this spring in advance of federal elections there and German director Thomas Ostermeier used it to noisily challenge reigning economic logic in a production from Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz (seen at BAM in November). The faces of STAN’s cast are visibly more time-worn than when they premiered the show in 1993 but this only adds an appropriate world-weariness to what is a constant for them: their intolerance with corruption and complacency. Ibsen’s play writes their concerns in broad strokes, telling the story of an idealistic doctor’s naive attempts to expose dangerous levels of contamination in the waters of the town’s spa, on which rests the entire community’s economy. In an age when oil and chemical spills, not to mention fracking, have become commonplace threats to natural resources, and water in particular, the play, written in 1882, sometimes feels premonitory.
STAN attacks the text in their way, which means they examine the characters’ motives to find the right register: there is the pride, then disbelief and disabused anger of Dr. Thomas Stockman (whose idealism Frank Vercruyssen delivers with sardonic distance); the blustering threats of his brother, the Mayor (played with Damiaan De Schrijver’s jovial intensity); as well as the calculated indignation of both the press and the economic establishment (summed up by the obliging smiles and worried frowns of Sara De Roo and Jolente de Keersmaeker). Except for Vercruyssen, the rest of the cast plays multiple roles but the doubling of De Schrijver as both Peter Stockman and Morten Kiil, Thomas’ heartless father-in-law, renders indistinguishable the two antagonists of the play, as indeed their motivations are the same.
But one of the biggest pleasures of watching STAN in action is to participate in a living moment of theater. The company first came to prominence by developing, almost intuitively, an approach to theater wherein the text and the actor reign supreme against the convention of the fourth wall and its corresponding vocabulary of sets, lighting and musical design (all somewhat disdainfully disregarded). The company’s sole rehearsal strategy is to learn and understand the whole text through repeated, close reading and discussion of the original version as well as available translations (the company performs in Dutch, French and English). Only once they feel they have mastered the text and understood the author’s intentions do they move to the stage, often on opening night, performing in a mostly bare space with no particular attention to directing at all. In lieu of sets and costumes, a prompter sometimes reads the stage directions and notes.
And so it is also in JDX-A Public Enemy; the cast is fully available to the audience, to exchange impromptu remarks on their pacing, or to discourse spontaneously on the smoking ban in the Public Theater, or to dialogue with the supertitles (the show is performed in Dutch). This immediacy is a constant reminder that performance exists in the meeting of audience and actors and text. STAN doesn’t go so far as to invite showgoers into the public hearing that is the focus of Act IV, as Ostermeier did, but the company’s choice to deliver the text as it is written means that STAN avoids directorial choices and the messages they formulate, and leaves the story in our own hands, to judge, interpret, and apply as best we may.
The STAN phenomenon, if the word is not too strong, may well be lost on Americans, but the company itself is directly responsible, having refused to tour to the US since a first visit to Oakland in 1996 to create One 2 Life, a show denouncing the inhumanities of the American penitential system. After that experience of swimming with the sharks (80% of Americans favored the death penalty in the mid 1990s, according to a Gallup Poll), the Antwerp-based company stayed away for the eight long years of George W. Bush’s presidency. By the time that was over, STAN (an acronym meaning Stop Thinking About Names: a holdover from the collective’s student days) had developed a dedicated following in Europe, particularly in France, where the company is regularly invited. It took Obama’s reelection, and the urging of UTR co-directors Meiyin Wang and Mark Russel, for the company to return.
The appearance of JDX-A Public Enemy in the Under the Radar program could just be a test run for STAN’s upcoming Belgian tour, but given the company’s unflinching political engagement, those fingers that Ibsen’s characters can’t stop pointing are undoubtedly aimed at our political failings, too.
In Dutch with English supertitles