Using field recordings from Calcutta, 60 speakers, 11 motorized vehicles and 195 feet of mini-train tracks, Norwegian company Verdensteatret turns On the Boards into a laboratory of hallucination.
Verdensteatret is the kind of theater company that baffles critics.
Reviews about the Norway-based collective — whose name roughly translates to “World Theater” — can be very specific about what Verdensteatret isn’t, but tend to get a little vague when they try to describe what Verdensteatret is.
The company’s latest production, “Bridge Over Mud” — a psychedelic, sensory-overload journey involving 195 feet of mini-train tracks built across the stage at On the Boards — is no exception. A critic at Oslo newspaper Klassekampen described it as “not plot-driven, and there’s no obvious narration … instead, there’s a fragmented form that opens for countless interpretations.”
‘Bridge Over Mud’
Verdensteatret at On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle, Sept. 22-25; $25 (206-217-9886 or ontheboards.org).
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“When you try to describe the performance, it sounds like psychosis,” said company member Eirik Blekesaune, sitting in the lobby of On the Boards on Tuesday before a run-through of the show’s West Coast premiere (Sept. 22-25). “If you list all the things in it, it doesn’t sound like anything — it’s more about how all those things communicate inside yourself.”
To attempt an explanation: On its most basic level, “Bridge Over Mud” is an intricate layer of shin-high mini-train tracks supported by stacks of thinly sliced wood and laced with a vast collection of objects — long rows of translucent glass plates just above the tracks, little arches of metal mesh, bones that look like human femurs, piles of what seem to be a few miles’ worth of plastic pink garlands.
The assemblage looks intricate but modest, like something a very bored child could have built in the basement over Christmas break. But when the run-through began, the theater was transformed with an overwhelming collection of sounds and images: loud blurts, as if from a tuba the size of a building; pulsing, hallucinatory circles of color on the upstage wall; pounding piano that began layering itself until it became a wall of sound; traffic noises; applause; a singing child.
A small locomotive, outfitted with a bright light, emerged from the darkness and slowly rolled down the tracks — and then the set came alive. The translucent glass plates began to turn, catching and refracting the car’s light onto the upstage wall, making a mesmerizing field of shifting color. The little arches of metal mesh became huge tunnels. There were projections of skulls, amoebas, light poles — the overall effect was like being inside a spell. Using subtle tricks of light and shadow, Verdensteatret transformed everyday objects into an experience that felt like entering a new galaxy.
“This installation is one big instrument,” said longtime Verdensteatret company member Asle Nilsen — all its intricate parts, he explained, cannot be automated but have to be “played” by the company members in real time.
Most of the audiovisual source material for “Bridge Over Mud,” Nilsen said, was recorded while the group spent a six-week sojourn in Calcutta. “But this is not about Calcutta,” he added. “We are not trying to portray Calcutta — Calcutta was just the starting point.” After collecting material, Verdensteatret spends months manipulating it with editing and effects. “We’re looking at it and listening to it every day, finding the inner logic of the material,” Blekesaune explained. In the end, some of the footage is recognizable (like, say, a street corner) and some is tweaked into pure abstraction.
If a company member has an idea for an effect that’s “too complete,” Nilsen added, it’s usually jettisoned. “Those ideas are not alive,” he said. “They arrive too stiff, too dead.”
Blekesaune laughed. “Yes! We like to work very intensely with bad ideas!”
“It’s like looking at a star, you know?” Nilsen added. “You have to look a little to the side to see it.”
If all this sounds confusing, it is — which is why critics have trouble describing the work, but also why Verdensteatret’s ineffable style has taken them around the world, from New York City to Shanghai. That confusion suits Lane Czaplinski, artistic director of On the Boards since 2002, just fine. For years, he’s said he likes to think a show is truly successful if a third of the audience loves it, a third loathes it and the rest don’t know what to think.
And On the Boards has cultivated a loyal audience willing to keep coming back for the next surprise — “Bridge Over Mud” promises to be one.
In the lobby, Blekesaune mentioned a recent New York Times review that described Verdensteatret as a symptom of theater’s overall “identity crisis.”
“Maybe you’re actually dance,” Czaplinski said.
Blekesaune laughed again. “We would,” he said, “be much more forgiven for being dance than for being theater! If you come to see us and expect theater in the common conceptualization of theater, then — then maybe you will not be so excited!”