It’s a cruel, cruel world these days, with the world economy in the doldrums, rising prices at home and horrible fighting in several regions. The perfect situation, you might think, for a theatrical performance based on 20th-century French playwright, poet and director Antonin Artaud and his manifesto, the Theater of Cruelty.
However, Artaud’s concept of “cruelty” has often been misunderstood — it is not theater to horrify or scar the participants, or the actors for that matter, but productions that break through reality to completely engulf the audience, even to the point where they are physically affected by it; productions that eliminate the limits imposed by language and text.
Those are goals that Riverbed Theatre (河床劇團) has been working toward for years, with very visual productions that do not need a lot of words to get their messages across, whether in a formal theater or in the group’s very intimate one-on-one productions of last summer’s Just for You Festival. So it is no surprise that Artaud and his manifesto should have inspired the company’s latest show, Beautiful Cruelty (美麗的殘酷), which is being staged at the Experimental Theater in Taipei this weekend.
The company is scaling new heights with Beautiful Cruelty — it has built its biggest-ever set, which looks like a segment of a fairy-tale castle wall. It’s 2.4m tall, 12.2m wide and 2.4m deep. The actors spend most of their time on top. If they slip, it will be a nasty fall to the audience’s feet.
“Building something of this scale is a great test of our carpentry skills. Scary for the performers walking on the top for the first time — and the second and the third,” said company director Craig Quintero in an interview in the Experimental Theater on Wednesday.
“The performers are looking down on the audience, so it is a completely different perspective [than a normal stage show] — and completely different depending on where you are sitting,” he said.
The creative process for this show was also very different from the way Quintero and the company work, coming up with images and then building a show around them. This time he had the score, by Blair Ko (柯智豪), first and then built the show from the musical format.
“This score had structure, the bones and the meat. So it was a question of how do we bring it to life — it’s got a very classical feeling with cello, violins, bass,” he said.
Quintero was also working with a whole new cast of actors, eight in all, which was something new for him as well, though the stage and technical crew are mostly old hands.
The show also features by now traditional Riverbed elements of video, sculptures and paintings.
Quintero said he became interested in doing a show centered on Artaud while doing research at Grinnell College in Iowa, where he is an associate professor, for a student production.
“Artaud is a figure that the theater world often refers to, but we don’t know much about him. I appreciate his total commitment to his art. It is moving; it’s not art for art’s sake. Today I think we need that kind of spirit,” Quintero said.
“He [Artaud] was a scholar. His work brought him to a dark place to find a new language, a new narrative structure, his Theater of Cruelty. We have a number of performance languages [in this piece]: dance, clowns, Butoh. This show is not the answer, but part of the ongoing quest to find ... theater that can give that connection,” Quintero said.
As the company says, Beautiful Cruelty is an invitation to pass through the doors of perception, to fall into the unknown. And with Riverbed’s track record, it’s certainly worth giving it a try.