Teorema on Governors Island

I confess to having a minor obsession with Governors Island, and get a thrill from doing anything that allows me to be there outside of the usual 10am-7pm hours of operation. Lincoln Center Festival’s Teorema, an import by Dutch company Toneelgroep Amersterdam, offered just that, plus the lure of seeing a new Ivo van Hove production. I was mesmerized by van Hove’s La Voix Humaine last fall at the New Island Festival, and I have friends that still rave about his Hedda Gabler at New York Theatre Workshop in 2004.

So: expectations were high, which made the production’s ponderousness all the more surprising. Teorema is a theatrical adaptation of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film, made in 1968 and based on his novel of the same title, and while I haven’t seen the film, Toneelgroep’s interpretation seems to hew closely to it cinematic predecessor. All the stereotypes of arty European film are present: lots of meaningful glances, little character or narrative development, and of course, some nudity. The production is highly polished, smartly acted within a modular grey and black set that takes advantage of the massive warehouse where it’s staged, and accompanied by a score of music performed live by the Bli!ndman [new strings].

The plot is simple: an unknown young man comes to stay with an upper-class family and effortlessly seduces everyone in the household, starting with the maid, and working his way through the son, mother, father, and daughter. The young man leaves as inexplicably as he has arrived, and the family is left in utter disarray, their lives drained of the meaning they discovered via their interactions with the young man.

There is nothing subtle about van Hove’s staging of this arc of events, and while the sexual openness may have been scandalous in 1968, it doesn’t carry the same shock-value today. Structurally, the nods to the avant-garde seem equally dated. All of the characters speak about themselves exclusively in the third person throughout the first half of the play, but they break into the first person once the young man has left. Yes, this shift is a clear indicator of the self-discovery wrought by the stranger’s visit and the isolation that previously dominated the family’s life, but revelatory or emotionally engaging it’s not.

Nonetheless, it would be hard to imagine a more compelling setting for Teorema—audience members must take a ferry and then walk 20 minutes to reach a cavernous warehouse in the middle of uninhabited Governors Island. As I walked back to the ferry dock, the lingering bleakness of the play was amplified by the abandoned quiet of the island and Manhattan’s lively lights looming across the water.

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