The Concretes (after Vladimir Sorokin)
nytheatre.com review by Richard Lovejoy
July 14, 2010
The Concretes (After Vladimir Sorokin) is a theatrical adaptation of the novel Le Concretes by Vladimir Sorokin (more information on the author can be found here). Interesting note—I could not find anything about the novel Le Concretes online. It isn't even listed on Sorokin's official website, and given the play's barely 40 minute runtime, I can't help but wonder if Le Concretes is actually a short story (despite the official blurb claiming it to be a novel). It is performed in a hodgepodge of languages (mostly Romanian, with some English and Chinese). The producing company, Green Hours Theater, received support from The Romanian Cultural Institute to bring this piece to the U.S.
I found the premise—a dystopian future where an anarchistic gang of youths play a virtual reality game involving entering classical literature—promising and potentially fascinating. Unfortunately, a great deal of the play was lost to me due to simple technical issues—namely the subtitles. They are placed very awkwardly, and my view of them from my seat was largely obstructed by a pillar. The letters are also not terribly bright or clear.
A talented, committed company consisting of Katia Pascariu, Monica Sandulescu, and Marius Damian and directed by Alexandru Mihaescu admirably throws itself into the piece. The acting across the board is fiercely physical, to the extent that I found myself wishing that the play was less literary. But the play is based on a novel, and unfortunately it shows. There is a lot more monologue than there is dialogue or action.
The play opens with a monologue in English from Kolia (Damian) that ends with the line "It is not a measure of health to be well-adjusted to an entirely sick society." From there we follow three almost feral youths, who seem to have their lives totally centered on cheap visceral thrills. Their apathetic brutality immediately brings to mind the youth in A Clockwork Orange. They brag about their genitalia and various body modifications and shortly begin arguing about what they're going to do that day, ultimately setting out for "the Archive." Once there, they must choose between cinema and literature. Having tried cinema before, they settle on literature and then find themselves dropped into the middle (or rather, near the climaxes) of classic texts ranging from Moby Dick to Dune. Portions of the text are read in English and the characters usually absorb it uncomprehendingly for awhile before devouring and / or penetrating one of the characters (such as Ahab and the whale). They then describe the orgy of blood and excrement that follows.
Essentially these kids are receiving these complicated narratives and failing to be able to directly engage them. They only way they can relate to these classic works is to devour, have sex with, and ultimately excrete their content. All of this is described to us, and the issue I mentioned earlier with the subtitles was especially frustrating at this juncture. There are some dense, heady ideas in all of this—intellectual and political—but sadly much of the play itself was escaping me as I struggled to watch the actors while attempting to crane my neck and read the obscured subtitles.
The play ends somewhat abruptly, following a series of monologues about the youths leaving the Archive and deciding to have a threesome together. Ultimately I left the theatre feeling puzzled, and wondering if there was something lost in translation from novel to stage. The play (in its current form anyway) is jarringly short, and the material seems to still want to be a work of literature, not of theatre. I have no doubt that a more theatrical script could be made from Le Concretes—one that gives the play room to breathe and explore the complicated ideas that are clearly the heart of the source material—and that this talented company could shine with the right adaptation. In its current form, it only barely held together for me, and this is largely due to the skill of the actors, who are using every ounce of will and craft to keep this beast alive. Even though there is much that is problematic in the script and in the way the production has been staged, there is certainly enough going intellectually to warrant giving The Concretes (After Vladimir Sorokin) a chance.