Navigating the Theater of the Urban

| January 26, 2013

You are standing awkwardly with a group of sixty people or so, at 9pm on a deserted street somewhere in São Paulo, when the play begins by cutting through the mass, cleaving the tenuous bonds that hold you together, bonds which also become all the more essential. This is just the beginning.

Soon the group finds itself ducking under a gate into a deserted mall, unclear whether we were invited in, corralled in, or whether it was our own collective curiosity. At each turn your sense of the scope of the event is shattered, your sense of the boundaries between city and theater further eradicated. This is Teatro da Vertigem’s “Bom Retiro 958 Metros.” You know this because you bought a ticket, prompted by the insistent cryptic buzz: go see it, there are not words.

The actors speak Portuguese, of course, but even if you don’t it hardly matters. It becomes just another effect or lack thereof—one always speaks or doesn’t speak the language, is always in a city, here or there, or not. It’s not that everything is interchangeable, but that specificities run everywhere. Not worrying about what is being said, and running on a week long sleep deficit, your thoughts have plenty of space to wander, a whole city, it seems.

Part of the reason for the buzz becomes increasingly evident, since it is buzzing now in your own head, building from a murmur. Any one of these turns/tropes would have sufficed to buttress a typical play, and yet here each one is casually exceeded. Threading the labyrinth of the mall, you find yourself outside; finding yourself outside, someone springs up a sheer stone wall, and as the empty subway car passes behind him it dawns on you that this may or may not have been orchestrated, the metro you arrived on turned into a massive infrastructural prop. What would this take, what does this take? This becomes a kind of refrain. Paradoxically, the sense of scale becomes more elusive, more apparent.

It is as if, sometimes, something comes along that so deftly shatters previous constraints that it is no longer particularly oriented to them. They are shed both grandly and casually.

So, for example, the mistake would be to think of this production as an exercise in breaking the fourth wall. This is a theatrical problem. (Instead, at some point you find yourself in an abandoned theater, then on stage, then washed out into the street by the pouring water of the cleaning crew.) Walls are not just fixed boundaries, more or less opaque, but also generators of flow. A gate lifts, the audience is swept down a narrow street, set in motion by a bike cart plunging through us and away, a window in an abandoned building is lit, then another, then another. It is as if, indeed, the usual theatrical problem is so swept away that all we are left with is these vestiges of the fourth wall itself, the bond of a displaced, nomadic audience following an unfolding production.

Because it is produced. There is no doubt about it. More Broadway than Broadway. Its backstage both brought out into the open and receding down dark alleys, scurrying to get ahead for the next scene, or already there, rerouting traffic, or sending it through the scene for “spontaneous” effects. This is the unsettling challenge: when the theater is swept away we are not quite left with the everyday—a slumbering city of commerce, dilapidated or abandoned buildings, people driving home. This is not minimalism receding to show us bare life, an “authentic” city. Instead we encounter the theatricality full force, the city as production, navigating its streets as an orchestration, the streetlamp turned on to spotlight a monologue from a marquee itself, brought to you by Petrobras, Brazilian Gas, and the Ministério da Cultura. The city mines its own ruins.

Which finds you thinking, in your sleep deprived, spatially and spectacle bewildered state, that when the usual constraints are so completely and masterfully shattered, it makes no sense to continue to orient to them, but neither are you simply free in the beyond. Instead the effect is to become aware of problems you did not even realize you had, masked as they are by the usual way of orienting to them. If theater is not a space within the city, a black box with a wall removed, then we are confronted with the underlying problem of the virtual/real that the theater both taps and constrains. But this is to be expected. Theater always presages this, rehearses and stages its own collapse. When it begins from here, however, and emerges full grown and fully clothed, as Athena from Zeus’ head, we discover another effect. New problems. What is, for example, a Teatro da Vertigem? The overall effect is indeed vertiginous, but of a certain sort that you can begin to recognize, even if you have never seen anything like it.

The very mechanisms that disorient also fiercely orient, and in their masterful execution you realize any number of decisions, vertigems that got sorted. How do you project scenery onto the exteriors of a building, what are the ways in which a crowd can be moved from place to place, how do you store and move props that are indistinguishable from garbage, inhabit spaces that are commercial or abandoned “by day,” project sound in the valleys and labyrinths of buildings and streets? All of these massive new problems are so deftly handled, that you may forget that they could have been otherwise. This is the layering of problems that dawns on you: old problems swept aside, older problems unearthed, new problems masterfully sorted, and then, uneasy, out at the limit, new problems that we did not realize we might have, unanswered, deliberately or inadvertently provoked. What other ways…

You find yourself telling others, go see it, there are not words. Not just out of awe, some desire to share the experience, but in the hopes that you could then talk on the other side. There is an uneasiness to this. It’s not a recommendation. You worry that others might be impressed, and tell others to go see it, and so on. Your unease a sign, perhaps, of some new problem, dimly perceived.

If only you could sleep…