The Stone - Arlekin Players Theatre
The Stone – Arlekin Players Theatre
Review by James Wilkinson
The Stone presented by Arlekin Players Theatre. Written by Marius von Mayenburg. Directed by Igor Golyak. Scenographer: David R. Gammons. Costume Design: Nastya Bugaeva. Lighting Design: Jeff Adelberg. Composer: Jakov Jakoulov. Video Designer: Vladimir Gusev.
For Arlekin Players Theatre’s production of The Stone, the past isn’t just present, it’s also rotting to disintegration before our very eyes. This isn’t a pleasant trip through old times. It’s claustrophobic. It’s uncomfortable. It’s frustrating. (This is all mostly by design). What else would you expect from a play that grapples with the memories of Nazism in contemporary Germany? Plenty of artists across a wide range of disciplines have wrestled with depicting the lead up and aftermath of the Holocaust. There’s no shortage academic writing assessing the success and ethics of those attempts. It’s one of those subjects so enveloping that taking it on threatens to crush you under its weight (Perhaps it’s appropriate then that here the play is called The Stone).
In The Stone playwright Marius Von Mayenburg approaches his subject by smashing it with a hammer. We’re not getting a tidy narrative that puts everything into perspective for us. We’re getting fragments and shards glued back together to form some strange new beast. Under the direction of Artistic Director Igor Golyak, Arlekin Players Theatre’s production throws a lot of ideas into the mix. Or maybe it doesn’t. I’m still debating. The truth is that I have every reason to hate this production. It indulges in theatrical techniques that I abhor. It frequently teeters on the edge of an exasperating kind of artistic pretentiousness. It actively tries to alienate the audience every step of the way. But I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t engaged with the production. I was (or, at least I was until about ten minutes before the end when I started to fade out). You’re staring into the abyss with a production like this and I spent much of the show’s run time staring into that void trying figure the damn thing out. In my book, that counts for something. I don’t think that the production is a complete success but it’s far from a complete failure. That strange mix easily makes it one of the more interesting productions that I’ve seen this year.
The Stone is a play about a house located in East Germany and the families who call it home over the course of sixty years (about 1935 to 1993). One family in particular will take center stage as the narrative ricochets like a stray bullet from the past to the future, back to the past, further in the past, then to the future and so on. Along the way, you gather bits of information like pieces of lint until finally the larger picture of what you’re seeing begins to form. As scenes will sometimes only last a minute or two before the characters suddenly traverse to another age the technique starts off incredibly disorientating, preventing you from being sure how what you’ve just seen corresponds to what you’re seeing now (and possibly prevents you from catching a major plot point early in the show). For the sake of spoilers, I can’t say much more than the play traces how its central family deals with its history of Nazism throughout the second half of the twentieth century. But it’s important to point out that play’s fractured narrative isn’t just some writerly gimmick; it’s integral to his larger purpose. The structure of the piece allows Mayenburg to provide the audience with information and insight that’s denied to the characters. There’s a puzzle box nature to his original text that I think is what makes the pieces as engaging as it is.
It wasn’t until after the show, when I started looking into the playwright, that I realized this isn’t my first interaction with Marius von Mayenburg’s work. Apollinaire Theatre Company did a production of his play, The Ugly One, back in 2011. That play was a comic romp that started as a satire of appearances before twisting into something much weirder. The Stone is a much darker play, (tackling Nazis will do that), but you can see enough similarities between the works to know we’re with the same playwright. Characters and timelines are treated in the fluid manner.
The content of von Mayenburg’s play could have made for a grand historical epic. The Arlekin Players’ Theatre takes his script and turns it into a literal experiment. Director Golyak frames the play with two mute characters who enter the space and seem to set the performance into motion, (the program refers to these two as only “Conductor #1 and #2” which seems appropriate as both their appearance and function seems like a riff on the Cat in the Hat’s Thing 1 and Thing 2.). These two will fade into the background, but their presence is always felt. They’re constantly adjusting the live-feed cameras that broadcast to the televisions scattered around the performance space. Turn your attention to them at any moment and you might catch them scribbling equations in chalk on the performance space walls while they watch the show along with us.
I bring this up because this idea of observation seems to have sunk into the bones of the production to the point that we’re not really allowed to bring anything of ourselves to it. David R. Gammons’ set design puts the play into a wasteland beyond space and time. The laws of physics don’t really seem to apply. When the actors begin moving through space, it’s as though they’re just going through the motions. Anything resembling humanity seems to have been sucked out of them. Movement is kept limited and stylized. Even their costumes (design by Nastya Bugaeva) are totally devoid of color other than the traces of black mud soaked into them hems. If it wasn’t for the heartbeat you occasionally hear in the background, it would be hard to remember that there’s anyone alive onstage (which, I guess you could argue is part of the point as the ghostly figures we’re watching seem to be haunting each other).
This all might make the production seem minimalist and it’s anything but. The scene transitions (the most irritating I’ve encountered in quite a while), blast you with noise and lights and many scenes play with music or lighting that seems incongruous with what’s going on. With all of this happening, it’s difficult for the actors to come through. As the sole character that exists throughout the play’s timeline, Darya Denisova manages to bring out some affecting moments as her character bounces from old age to youth and back again. I think that Viktoriya Kovalenko has one of the most effective moments in the show and tellingly, it’s a moment when the noise around the actors cedes and she’s allowed to hit something much more nakedly emotional.
Will audiences respond to a production like this? I don’t know. Consider this: a friend I had brought with me to the show was so moved by the production that at curtain call he rose to his feet to give a one-man standing ovation. I’m not looking to discredit his experience, but nor can I ignore the yawns and seat shuffling from my fellow patrons in the last third of the play which suggested they weren’t quite on the same wave length. Eventually, the alienation that production indulges in got to be too much for them. Where do I fall? Somewhere in the middle. For all of my gripes, I can’t ignore that part of me was pulled into the world of what director Golyak has assembled. There’s something here, even if I can’t quite pin it. I will happily say, though, that whatever my feelings, this production represents a kind of experimentation that I wish we saw more of in Boston theater. Given the chance to see something more interesting than the usual fair, I’d happily drive out again.
The Stone is presented by Arlekin Players Theatre September 13-29, 2019.
For tickets and information, visit their website: www.arlekinplayers.com
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