Auto Da Fe
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 8, 2010
Nothing is likely to prepare you for what you will experience when you enter the theatre at Baruch Performing Arts Center and first encounter International WOW's Auto Da Fe. Even if you've seen some of IW's previous work, like the brilliant Expense of Spirit or the bounteous Limitless Joy; even if you're an experimental theatre veteran with decades of Foreman and Wooster Group and so on under your belt; even as you stand in the lobby area wondering what these people mean when they tell you that "seating is part of the experience"—whatever you may have in your head won't match what happens when you enter the space for the event.
Which is why I'm loathe to try to describe it; I want you to discover Auto Da Fe for yourself, even though it is by turns bracing, difficult, obtuse, harrowing, and relentless. For it is also breathtakingly immersive and astonishingly relevant, in a way that soaks under the skin and into the marrow. Auto Da Fe covers a lot of ground, but one of its key themes is that suffering is humanity's lot and its rite, a thing embedded in our collective karma despite our often seeming to have the power to erase or at least mitigate some of its forms. I have never seen suffering depicted so intensely, so nakedly, and so profoundly on stage as it is here—moving me not to pity or to distraction but to a deep level of compassion that I'm not sure I access very often.
And that's just one of the emotions that director Josh Fox, collaborating with an enormous team of actors, writers, designers, and behind-the-scenes personnel, conjures in this singular work of theatre. Oftentimes there are contradictory feelings vying for our attention: I was aware, for example, of the majesty and beauty of some of the stage pictures in Auto Da Fe at the same time that I was stunned by their potency, wishing I didn't have to keep looking at what I was looking at or thinking what I was made to think about.
Auto Da Fe is a contemporary Japanese play, written by Masataka Matsuda and translated into (mostly) English by Kameron Steele and Shigeki Morii. It's a surreal post-apocalyptic nonlinear text in which Odysseus returns home from war (probably not the Trojan War; a conflict in our future or completely out of time). When he arrives, he finds that History is being "processed" and "excavated": the grand themes of what we call human civilization are distilled and replayed in a variety of ways as Odysseus and we bear witness. The language and tone borrow from Eastern and Western cultural signposts, always simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar; here, for example, is part of a recitation by the group of Reporters at the site of the excavation:
143A-66, The Second Treaty between Dunja and Mertogo. The month of C of 142 to 144, The War Against Hamnibal War, Dunja occupied the Imperial Capital, Urda. Carthage, Pact nullified. 4J of 331, a commoner of Dunja became the first executive officer. The persistent efforts of the grass-roots movement blew-up the inauguration party. The union gathered at the piazza and confirmed solidarity of blood. Waved the flag.
And on and on; and so it goes. Fox doesn't simply stage the text, which manages to be both sparse and dense (the whole script runs just 15 pages, while the show lasts some two hours). Instead he illuminates it using his considerable theatrical know-how, presenting us with a series of memorable vignettes that incorporate dazzlingly original design, thrilling choreography and equally thrilling stillness. Every element is used in unexpected ways: actors portray characters of all kinds (and not just people) and conglomerate into meticulously plotted groupings to realize stage images depicting battles, wedding processions, a cemetery, or the remnants of some manmade destruction on the order of Hiroshima or Chernobyl. Journalists hover above the action speaking into microphones. A military coup is staged. Everybody suddenly, almost joyously, bursts into "Guantanamera." It's a savage mirror reflecting the way we live now and the way we have always seemed to live.
It's important to recognize some key contributors to this event. Paul Bargetto directs with Fox; the piece is so seamless that it's hard to know who did what, though aspects of both of their personal styles are evident. Nate Lemoine is the set designer, providing a fluid, spare three-dimensional backdrop for the play that constantly morphs; it works beautifully with the masterful, evocative lighting design of Charles Foster and Jenny Cunningham. Julian J. Mesri's sound contains elements of the mundane and elements of the exotic. Cait O'Connor's many costumes are imaginative. The company of 28 actors perform with dedication, energy, and precision. They deserve major kudos, for what they are doing is not only physically rigorous but emotionally difficult as well—the places they go, and take us, are often bleak and desperate.
It's a necessary journey. I left Auto Da Fe feeling not so much catharsis as a kind of consciousness-cleansing, with priorities subtly rearranged as I gained or regained some valuable insights about the good and bad in the human condition. And, as usually occurs after an International WOW production, I was exhilarated by the possibilities of theatre.