I’m going to level with you guys. There’s a good chance that I will NOT be reviewing the actual production of Buran Theater Company’s new production Magic Bullets – one of the final performances at the venerable Incubator Arts Project at St. Marks Church, before they close up shop this July. My wife gave birth to our second baby a few days ago so I can’t really make any promises about anything.
I am of course ecstatic about my new baby girl, but I am also sorry to miss the latest madcap extravaganza from Buran, a company that produces work of such a unique texture and tenor that it subverts any real attempts at linear consideration. I loved reviewing their productions of The House of Fitzcarraldo and Nightmares: a demonstration of the sublime when I was at Backstage because both pieces demanded that I exercise my critical apparatus in a new, more theoretical way – a genuine gift when you’ve written dozens of reviews of shows about dysfunctional families or the horrors of war or any of the other things that by-the-book plays are allowed to be about these days.
So, in the interest of supporting this new piece from Buran, I’ve been in touch with one of their artistic directors, Adam R. Burnett, who invited me to an “in-progress” performance of the show (which I will cover in more detail next week) and provided some other interesting support materials, which I will draw upon when thinking about the company’s overall methodology in this Pre-Game. I know it’s kind of a breach of protocol for a critic and an artist to be in contact before the critic reviews something, but whatever – I’m hardly a proper critic anymore. This is the brave new world of New Media and all that. And anyway, my working relationship with Burnett pretty much BEGAN with a breach of protocol.
I was working on a play of my own when I reviewed Buran’s fractured docudrama The House of Fitzcarraldo in 2012. I had some questions about the ways in which Buran had handled the biographical components of the piece, but was honor-bound by the rules of minimum critical distance not to ask. Yet for some reason I felt compelled to break my solemn oath of non-interference and emailed Burnett to ask for advice. Nothing ever came of the play I was working on, but the pleasant interactions with Burnett gave me a more vested interest in the company.
*Now that I think of it, my relationship with Burnett ACTUALLY began during the performance of Fitzcarraldo, when he (as a performer) asked me (as an audience member) to help pull a giant rope. But more on that later. Either way, kind of a messy way to begin. But if their aesthetic is any indication, Buran is clearly good with messy.
However chaotic it can be from production to production, theater (like all art) usually functions as a kind of organizing principle. A playwright uses the narrative or experience of a play to show you a big idea in a very specific and thus more easily digestible way. On a macro level The Glass Menagerie, for instance,is about identity and memory, and how one can shape the other; but on a nuts-and-bolts-level it’s about blue roses and writing poems on shoebox lids and the series of events that befall a broken family during the first half of the 20th Century. The characters, structure, and poetry of the play form the scaffolding for the big ideas. The ideas wouldn’t have time to properly gestate if Tennessee Williams had just rented a theater, walked on stage every night and said, “We are who we remember ourselves to be” and then dropped the curtain. (Though I get the impression the folks at Buran probably would have enjoyed something like that.) You need to see these ideas in action. And for most theater that action is narrative.
But Burnett is bored by narrative, as he outlines in this interview on Adam Szymkowicz’s site; in the Indie Theater Now introduction for the script of Fitzcarraldo, he goes as far as saying that “Narrative is inherently manipulative, deceptive and limiting.” So Burnett and Buran have found a different kind of performative action – one more akin to the “action painting” of Jackson Pollock. They take a specific event or idea, like the filming of Werner Herzog’s already loopy film Fitzcarraldo, in which the enigmatic German auteur had a steamboat dragged over a mountain, and then explode it into a very funny fever dream of bizarre motifs and occurrences played out across zippy musical routines, animated video components, and jarring sexuality. And while each independent event in a Buran show is pretty easily digestible on its own, when viewed together in a fast-paced multi-media collage the themes and imagery overpower the senses. And the frantic speed – or action – of the experience appears to be part of the point; in Fitzcarraldo, a historian character questions the purpose of the production:
Why are we doing this I asked our director Nikolas Weir, “why spend all this time and energy and schrecklicheit on a story that’s already been told?”
“Silence!” he shouted. “There is no why in theater. There is only action. Why is there is there a plague on Thebes?”
That last bit is surely a reference to Oedipus Rex, where it is suggested that the murder of Oedipus’s father (by Oedipus) caused a plague, but, yeah, really who cares what the hell caused it? Make with the eye-gauging and mother-loving already, Oedipus Rex. Both Fitzcarraldo and Nightmares seek to correct the creeping pace of traditional Western linear narrative by bringing sensational antics to the forefront. As Indie Theatre Now’s Martin Denton touches on in his review of Nightmares, Buran uses this technique to confront the idea of subjective experience vs. objective reality in terms of art.
An example from The House of Fitzcarraldo that exemplifies this component of Buran’s nutty style: Herzog’s original film about the steamboat was a recreation of an actual historical event. The historical Fitzcarraldo, however, smartly had the steamboat disassembled and carried over the mountain in pieces and then reassembled on the other side. In Buran’s play Herzog says that this metaphor wasn’t “strong enough” for him. Clad in a g-string and rubbing bellies with the film’s star, Klaus Kinski (played by Buran’s other co-artistic director Jud Knudsen), Herzog says of the steamboat, “It needs to be grand, like the opera. Like the voice of Caruso. It needs to tear through the jungle.” So naturally he made the crew of locals actually physically pull the ship over the mountain in one piece with ropes. Herzog wants his recreation of the event to be more true to his idea of the event than to the event itself.
This version of Herzog (played by Burnett) stands in for all artists confronting the failure of objective historical narrative. Narratives about history are often rife with “weak” metaphors because metaphors aren’t a naturally occurring phenomenon – to get a truly good one an artist needs to cook the books a bit. What raw history is missing is perspective and interpretation. For Buran, the main value lies not in the pure facts of any given story or historical event being depicted, but in the loose ideas that you can shake out of it, like a beloved pick that’s been rattling around directionless inside an acoustic guitar. So Buran simply presents their subjective interpretation of the steamboat idea (itself taken from Herzog’s previous subjective idea) and leaves the audience to unpack the experience themselves. The layers of subjectivism culminate in the audience’s compliance in these events – hence why Burnett (as Herzog and as one of the chief creators of the piece) makes audience members like me literally pull the steamboat ropes with him.
What I’m sure Burnett and Buran are going for here is an encounter with “the sublime,” a quantifier that repeats itself as a leitmotif throughout the company’s work. Mind you, Buran are talking about the version of the sublime as outlined by philospher Edmund Burke, who disassociated the sublime from beauty and spoke about our mutual fear and attraction to it. With Fitzcarraldo the audience is both titillated and overwhelmed by the layers upon layers of interpretation, of disassembly and reassembly.
A more tangled version of this concept presents itself in Buran’s 2013 production of Nightmares: a demonstration of the sublime, which follows an essayist (again, Burnett) who receives notoriety for an essay that examines whether people can even be overwhelmed by the sublime in the age of social media and infinite information. The story of Burnett’s essayist is counter-pointed with several vignettes about the ways in which people cope with reality in the modern age. Case in point: a young woman called “Allergic Girl” who gets violently ill and anxious about Lyme’s Disease when she actually experiences nature herself; she does Google Image searches of places rather than traveling. The argument seems to be that technology has helped rob us the subjective experience. Earlier in the show, another character corroborates this by quoting a lecture given by the essayist where he said the “birth of the photograph was the death of the sublime.”
This echoes something else that seems to interest Buran: the way a message can get garbled in the disconnect between the source and the end point, whether it’s in translation, adaptation, or even plagiarism. Early in Fitzcarraldo, there is a bit where Jud Knudsen’s delightfully manic version of actor Klaus Kinski gives a rallying speech to the film’s crew in German, which Herzog translates into English, which a production guy translates into Spanish for the locals, who in turn translate it into Lithuanian. Here is how this sequence reads in the script (available at Indie Theater Now):
KINSKI (in German, raving): Ich bin night der Jesus der offiziellen Kirche (“I am not the Jesus of the Official Church.”)
HERZOG (in English, deadpan): I am not a man who likes to makes speeches.
WALTER (in Spanish, fake cheerful): Estoy tan feliz de compartir este momento con usted. (“I am so happy to share this moment with you.”)
LOCAL (in a fake Indian dialect, actually Lithuanian): blondinas vyras yra raving apie kazka naujo. (“The blonde man is raving about something again…”)
Honestly, it’s been a few years since I saw this show – I don’t even remember if they subtitled each character, but either way this is a hilarious sequence. It goes on for a couple of minutes, underlining the absurd levels of separation the audience is supposed to feel from the events and characters. That it begins with the Jesus line is an especially brilliant defying of expectations; Buran often likes to start at crazy and then go from there.
Mistranslation and creative misinterpretation are a big part of Harold Bloom’s literary theory. In his monstrously long and only occasionally interesting book The Western Canon, Bloom frequently makes the point that plagiarism is a legal distinction, not a literary one. In Nightmares, Knudsen plays a puffed up art history professor type who accuses the essayist played by Burnett of plagiarizing his popular essay. It’s an accusation that probably shouldn’t carry much sting in the realm of web commentary, where everything that can be said is being said somewhere online on repeat, probably in the form of a cat video. But it’s an important subject for Buran, who always sort of swallow their sources and inspirations whole, pass them through their system, and then spit them out as a different substance. In fact, it’s so important that when Knudsen’s character makes his first accusation of Burnett’s character in Nightmares, their scene is suddenly interrupted by a haunting cut-away to a masked naked woman walking towards the audience.
In the language of Buran, this kind of lurid juxtaposition can mean anything or it can mean nothing, but it certainly ensures you are paying attention when the naked woman goes away and the scene between Knudsen and Burnett resumes. It also charges the remainder of their overly intellectual exchange with an erotic energy, much like the G-String/belly rubbing scene they shared in Fitzcarraldo. After all this is a play that presents Lord Byron, whose idea of the “Vampyre” the Essayist points out was also “stolen” by John William Polidori, as a debauched party guy on a grassy knoll in Geneva. For Buran, an accusation of literary plagiarism should be a little sexy.
According to Burnett and the press materials for the new show, Magic Bullets will build upon Buran’s established sensual aesthetic and exploration of the sublime, but it will be different in that it has “less of a historical or cultural backdrop.” Here is an adorable trailer for the piece:
Burnett says that Magic Bullets is not so much about the health care system, but about each individual’s experience with health and wellness. This is a decisive shift from the film vs. reality vs. live performance of Fitzcarraldo and the contrast of Henry Fuseli paintings and romantic literature with contemporary digital media in Nightmares, but an intriguing one. The concept of “staying well” is simple, but the particulars of each person’s subjective experience in attempting to do this and their attempts communicate it with others are often overwhelming, as this second trailer for the piece shows:
After circling around ideas of the sublime and commentary on it in digital media, Nightmares ultimately reduces all of these intellectual pursuits into their simplest form, a dissonant chorus of people shouting “WATCH ME!” “WATCH ME!” WATCH ME!” We do these things, Buran seems to say, to assuage some base instinct, some inner need for expression and only validation will make us feel right. The final line in the play is that “we all try to cleanse ourselves,” which in hindsight seems like an obvious lead in to Magic Bullets.
So perhaps Buran’s swerve to health and wellness feels a little more natural. After all, the ways in which we care for ourselves are often no more than performative actions; like the exploits in a Buran show, the fruit shakes we blend and the yoga positions we execute are somewhat nonsensical efforts that we undertake in hopes of constructing an ambiguously defined gestalt notion of “well-being.” We are like Buran, as we try to curb or enact larger more abstract ideas like acid reflux disease or incubating an unborn child with our bizarre dietary choices and mysterious pre-natal vitamins.
With Magic Bullets, Buran isn’t talking about the sublime in the context of art or nature anymore; they’re talking about it in the immediate context of our everyday lives, where we often pull the ropes of steamboats we cannot see.
Magic Bullets will run at the Incubator Arts Project (located inside St. Mark‘s Church) 131 East 10thStreet at 2nd Ave. in Manhattan. Tickets are $18.00 at: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/16/1398985200000. More information at: http://www.incubatorarts.org/magicbullets2013.html