The Deer House at BAM

Tuesday night we went to see Jan Lauwers and Needcompany‘s production of The Deer House at BAM. I had never seen their work before but had heard about them and was excited to see the show. I was not disappointed.

The backstory is that while the company was on tour in Europe they were in the dressing room when one of the actors got word that her brother, a war reporter in Kosovo, had died. This led Lauwers to write this play which is a mix of fact and fiction. The show is divided into two acts – Act One which occurs in the dressing room and Act Two which occurs in the Deer House – a fictional house in Kosovo where a down-on-their-luck family breeds deer and harvests their antlers. Act One begins with the actors joking around backstage, flirting, dancing, goofing off – and turns darker when the news of the death becomes known. They have come into possession of the reporter’s diary and read through it – each entry describing a photograph he has taken and telling the story. The images are often horrific, even though they are only recounted in dialogue. The fact that they are speaking interchangeably in English, French and Dutch gives the show a global, universal feel. They slip between languages as seamlessly as they slip between dancing, acting and singing.

After they have put on their costumes – elf ears, furry garments – Act Two commences. Benoit, the reporter, comes to the Deer House. He has been forced to kill a woman in order to spare her daughter, and he comes to the Deer House to admit his guilt and return the body. The mother of the woman he killed is the matriarch of the Deer House family and although she is torn she let him into the house. What happens next is a multilayered series of events about “whose story is this?” – how is the story meant to unfold. Its a metanarrative about who gets to write history and how we construct the fables of our own lives. Throughout, the family struggles with death – how to clothe the naked, dead body of the murdered daughter, what rituals to observe. Should Benoit die as penance?

But the particulars of the plot are less important than the overarching tone of the show which is poetic and dreamlike, seamlessly blending movement, text and music.  The surreal flow of the performance echoes the horrors of war and the chaos of everyday life during wartime. The dead come to life, the past slips into the present and the future is undetermined an unimaginable? Three bodies are found in a fire – but who are the dead? Fact and fiction come together to form the outline of an unreliable narrative – it plays more like visions from a collective memory, like a dark fairy tale of love and loss and revenge.

The actor/dancers are all wonderful – their personalities come through as individuals from the delivery of lines to their unique movement styles. They embody the emotional states with a certain distance that allows you to feel with them and for them, but the style is not obtrusive or showy. Grace Ellen Barkey is particularly notable as the retarded daughter, Grace.

It is not so often that we get to see such accomplished movement theater, so I suggest checking out The Deer House while you can.

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