The Goodman Theatre in Chicago has been doing the seemingly impossible -- making Eugene O'Neill compelling for a new generation. Robert Falls, the Goodman's artistic director, had the brilliant idea of not just reviving a slew of O'Neill's plays in a festival format, but of turning five of them over to a selection of international avant-garde performance groups, including The Wooster Group, Companhia Triptal, The Hypocrites and the Neo Futurists, for their decidedly adventurous takes on a playwright Falls considers "the American Shakespeare."
Falls himself directed the Goodman's mainstage production of Desire Under the Elms
with Brian Dennehy, which will soon be on its way to Broadway.
So this has not merely been an O'Neill revival, but a reinvention that, at the same time, has served to reveal to audiences the many ways the art of theater has evolved since O'Neill's time.
It's hard to imagine a more stunning demonstration of 21st century theater craft and aesthetics than the performance we were able to see last Saturday night, Toneelgroep Amsterdam's production of Mourning Becomes Electra
, O'Neill's take on Aeschylus' tragic trilogy, The Oresteia
Directed by Ivo Van Hove, and with an ensemble cast of eight, the Toneelgroep pulled O'Neill's play apart and put it back together again with a fully committed intensity that was breathtaking in its assurance and command. The experience was riveting, which is saying something given the fact that the performance was three hours long -- and in Dutch.
I have never seen better acting on a stage anywhere in my life. The physical and emotional intensity of the players reached for -- and ultimately grasped -- what the best theatre aspires to, which is the creation of a shared experience, in real time, with the audience.
There is a lot that could be said about what Van Hove has accomplished -- and how he has deployed a variety of media, from an overhead projector to high rez video and even email to to make a play with an almost impossible amount of exposition (in fact that's all the play really is: people talking to each other about all the ways they have been violated by one another) into a headlong rush toward tragic inevitability.
But for now I'll settle for sharing this observation: Over the past few years it has become increasingly clear that the continental Europeans are way ahead of Americans and Brits when it comes to how they think about and deliver works of theatre. As I marveled at the accomplishment of the Toneelgroep's ensemble, I couldn't help but wonder if these artists have benefitted from living in a society where they haven't got a gigantic commercial entertainment industry, but where they do have a generous system of state support for the arts.
Unlike their American counterparts, Dutch theatre artists are unencumbered by the lure of Hollywood or other forms of showbiz stardom. I think the last Dutch actor to make any kind of a splash in this sense was Rutger Hauer in the late 1970s, when the film Soldier of Orange
became an unexpected international hit. The Toneelgroep artists have nothing to distract them careerwise from making the most adventurous theater they can imagine.
And they are able to make this theater because they receive enough money from the state to be able to live decently and thus put their art first, without having to grovel to local commercial taste. Indeed, when a society values artists enough to set them free this way it does at least two things:
1. It honors art and artists and demonstrates its belief that making art is a value to society as a whole.
2. It actually alters society's taste for what's commercial, confusing (in a good way) what might be considered commercial and what is not.
It is worth noting here that as avant-garde as Toneelgroep might seem to an American audience, this outfit is the official municipal theater ensemble of Amsterdam. Every year they produce five new shows and present 300 performances for more than 90,000 people. Also worth noting: the Goodman's Owen Theatre was filled the night we were there -- and by a younger-looking audience than one is accustomed to seeing for mainstage productions.
When you experience something as truly revelatory as the Toneelgroep's Mourning Becomes Electra
, it is tempting to call it "experimental." But that only betrays how exhausted our American performance vocabulary has become. There was nothing experimental about this production. It represented the state of a highly evolved contemporary art.