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"L'Effet de Serge" by Philippe Quesne, Vivarium Studio. Photo: Martin Argyroglo Callias Bey/Vivarium Studio.
Breaking Ice
By Alexis Soloski

Lokal Festival #1
Reykjavik, Iceland

In 1818, the travel writer Ebenezer Henderson declared, "Reykjavik is unquestionably the worst place in which to spend the winter in Iceland. The tone of society is the lowest that can be imagined [and] it is devoid of every source of intellectual gratification." Well, that certainly hasn't been the case for some time (and likely wasn't even in Henderson's day), but Reykjavik is looking to increase its winter quotient of intellectual gratification with the launch of Lokal, an international festival of art and performance. The inaugural version of Lokal, held in Reykjavik from March 5-10, 2008, combined Icelandic works with two from New York and one from Paris.

Launching a truly international arts festival poses the sorts of financial, artistic and logistical challenges that demand hordes of interns, scouts, producers, and grant writers. The United States, a country with exponentially more resources than Iceland, only boasts a handful them--Lincoln Center Festival, BAM Next Wave, Portland's Time-Based Arts, and the more recent Under the Radar, plus occasional events organized by universities. In its first year, at least, Lokal seemed to be struggling to define itself, attract interested companies, and offer the sort of programming that would appeal to local theatergoers and arts tourists.

W.H. Auden, who visited Iceland in 1936, wrote, "A small country like Iceland should be an ideal place for a really live drama--as in Ireland. This depends solely on writers of whom there are plenty--and a few enthusiastic amateurs in a small room. To start by building an enormous state theatre which you can't afford to finish is starting at the wrong end." In fact, Iceland developed its own theater somewhat late. It bred a few dramatists in the 19th century, but the National Theater (the building Auden dismissed) did not see completion until 1950 and the country could not boast a professional theater company until 1963. Nor did a drama school exist until 1950. But Iceland has made up for lost time, and quickly, too. Its National Theater stages an impressive mix of new and classic European plays and new Icelandic dramas, as well as musical and children's theater. In a country with a population of 280,000, the various theaters sell an impressive 400,000 seats.

Following a recent visit, the Guardian critic Michael Billington announced that Iceland "has one of the most innovative theatres in Europe. Like the country itself, it still awaits our full, amazed discovery." At the Lokal Festival, that discovery couldn't quite be made. The four Icelandic performances could hardly stand in for all the nation's theater--especially as the shows varied in their modes, ambitions, and accomplishments. (Yet, they could boast some strange correspondences, namely the liberal use of smoke machines. A nod to the misty country?) And a few notable productions--an acclaimed version of Ivanov at the National and an adaptation of Lars Moodyson's Together by the Vesturport Company among them--which were running concurrently in Reykjavik did not feature in the festival. But the Lokal shows, the Icelandic ones at least, did not seem strikingly innovative.

"Badstofan" by Hugleikur Dagsson, directed by Stefan Jonsson.The festival-going began with Badstofan, a play by Hugleikur Dagsson, best known in Iceland as a cartoonist "of dark and disgusting jokes." The term badstofan refers to the "communal living room" around which rural life centered, even as late as the 20th century. (Iceland's national museum offers a re-creation of a typical badstofan, a dark, wood-paneled room in which the farm inhabitants ate, worked, and slept.) In the course of the play, this particular living room saw multiple murders, rapes, suicides, and one rather terrifying whale penis.

In the audience talkback following, the director Stefan Jonsson explained that Icelanders tend to romanticize the idea of the badstofan, viewing it as the symbol of a jolly rural past without the complications of modern life. The goal of the script, Jonsson explained, was to strip away that romantic myth. But by representing the badstofan as the scene of so very much corruption, the play merely substitutes one myth for another. And though the script thinks itself quite daring, it may not surprise those familiar with J.M. Synge's peasant plays or Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths. (Apparently, it has angered some local audience members, who do not want to think themselves descended from such goings on.) But Badstofan did offer some striking imagery, courtesy of director Jonsson, and a rich and strange soundscape designed by the band Flis and played on instruments crafted from the fixtures of peasant life--spinning wheels, threshing machines, etc.

The next night brought another Icelandic production entitled Othello, Desdemona, and Iago, a distillation of Shakepeare's tragedy. In what seemed a kind of theatrical atavism, a return to 1960s experimentalism, the production featured an Othello played by a dancer, Desdemona played by a deaf actress who uses sign language, and Iago by Hilmir Snaer Guonason, a speaking actor who is one of Iceland's most sought after performers. The source play clearly emphasizes problems in representation and communication, but the production appeared to simplify these difficulties rather than complicate them, while shortening the play's narrative arc and emotional reach.

"L'Effet de Serge" by Philippe Qusne, Vivarium Studio.Much more affecting was the Paris company Philippe Quesne/ Vivarium Studio's L'Effet de Serge. This hour-long performance concerned a man named Serge (Gaetan Vourc'h) who lives alone and spends his free time creating low-tech special effects. Each Sunday evening, he invites friends to come over, have a drink, and witness one of his spectacles, such as "Luminous Effect on Music by Wagner" or "Laser Effect on Music by John Cage." A tall, exceedingly gentle presence, Vourc'h shows us how everyday objects--car headlights, shoes, remote control toys--can contain the seeds of magic. At the production's end, Vourc'h announced the company's next project, La Melancolie des dragons, which will premiere later this year in Austria. Perhaps Under the Radar or the Lincoln Center Festival will have the good sense to bring it to New York as well.

Melancholy, of dragons or otherwise, absented itself in Her & Nu (Here and Now), by the Icelandic group Sokkabandid, a performance satirizing fame and tabloid journalism. Taking the form of an evening news and entertainment program, with text lifted directly from such television programs and from celebrity magazines, the piece examines how reputation is created and how contemporary news media equalize puff pieces and actual tragedies. (It's a textbook example of Philip Auslander's idea of a "resistant" theater, one that examines how meaning and influence aremade.) These aren't necessarily new ideas, but they seemed expertly enacted by the cast and, even without benefit of supertitles, often chilling.

The Talking Tree on the other hand, featuring Icelandic native daughter Erna Omarsdottir and Belgian lad Lieven Dousselare, was much too silly to chill. An able dancer, Omarsdottir muddied her movement work with fairy tales about girls in love with goldfish, a young man with a multifunctional penis, and a lonely sock who dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. Omarsdottir created some gorgeous images--using her body, gold paint, and a large number of apples--and Dousselare supplied some haunting music, but they couldn't overcome the preciousness of the text.

New York brought some of its local favorites to Lokal: Richard Maxwell's The New York City Players traveled with Ode to the Man Who Kneels and Nature Theater of Oklahoma came with No Dice. Though the festival organizers had some difficulty finding an audience for these shows (many performances played to half-empty rooms), the students of Reykjavik's acting conservatory seemed incredibly moved and excited by the latter piece (and by L'Effet de Serge as well), many of them attending two and three times. As part of Lokal, the students also organized an open day at their school. In the manner of most student work, the pieces on display were messy, and often loud, but they all betrayed an energy and sophistication that promises very well for the next generation of Icelandic theater and the coming years of the Lokal festival. Auden's dream of "a really live drama for Iceland" may well come true.

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