Susanne Kennedy makes cyborg theatre. There really is no other term to better describe the mesmerizing fusion of artificiality and depersonalization that characterizes her singular theatrical vision. Shortlisted for this year’s Theatertreffen, Women in Trouble is the first of Kennedy’s productions that I’ve experienced which doesn’t take the form of an adaptation.
In 2015, Kennedy’s stage version of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Warum Lauft Herr R. Amok? entranced and infuriated audiences with its glacial pace, disembodied performances and radical commitment to its uncanny aesthetic. With Women in Trouble, Kennedy enlarges and expands on this aesthetic vision with a piece that succeeds in being more ambitious, hypnotic and sprawling then anything she has done previously.
Set atop the Volksbühne’s large-scale revolve, designer Lena Newton’s complex structure rotates on a perpetual loop, revealing a vast laboratory of zones and screens decked out in luminous high-gloss patterns. It’s shifting and mutable form sometimes points to a medical-facility and at other times indicates the studio of some dystopian television soap opera.
We’re drawn into the contraption’s unceasing orbit as we trace the disorientating journey of Angelina Dreem, the star of a long-running web-series who admits herself into the facility for a terminal illness. As Angelina moves through these seemingly illusory and unreal spaces, we encounter numerous conflicting versions of this erstwhile protagonist, as her doppelgangers multiply in a disorientating sequence of opposing scenarios: we watch as one Angelina confronts an unplanned pregnancy that ultimately ends in a stillbirth, while another Angelina attempts to recover from a nervous breakdown following a physical assault from a male colleague.
Each of these troubled heroines are trapped in a multiverse of pain – imprisoned in bodies that somehow fail them or become the victim of malevolent forces beyond their control. As this discontinuous sequence of alternating realities begin to collapse in on each other, Women in Trouble takes on the highly associative logic of a hallucination. There are subtle allusions to the fact that what we may be experiencing Angelina’s fugue state – a dissociative episode or altered spasm of consciousness that can afflict those battling a terminal illness – but Kennedy purposefully denies us the comfort of such an explanation.
Control, and in particular, the impact of technology on our own bodily agency is a principal concern of Kennedy’s work. It’s also one that has come to define and shape the formal elements of her productions. It is an approach defined through a total depersonalization of the actors’ body. Try as we might, we are not permitted to get too close to Kennedy’s characters, at least not in any straightforward emotionally gratifying sense.
Women in Trouble denies us the instinctual comforts that come with being able to relate ourselves emotionally with Angelina, and this is borne out through Kennedy’s use of masks and disembodied speech that reconfigure these characters into automatons – hosts to some external force. While we can sit and admire the synchronicity that Kennedy’s actors achieve in their simulation of speech and physical movement, we are made continually aware that it is no more than a simulation, that these bodies are ultimately subordinate to a greater external force.