Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s After the Rehearsal/Persona at Philly Fringe

Images from dress rehearsal for Toneelgroep Amsterdam's "After the Rehearsal / Persona"  Photo © Jacques-Jean Tiziou

Images from dress rehearsal for Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s “After the Rehearsal / Persona”
Photo © Jacques-Jean Tiziou

Philadelphia’s Fringe Festival is comprised of two types of fringe-ing. There’s the Independent/Neighborhood Fringe–which is Fringe as we typically understand it, independent producers sprawled all over the city making weird experimental pieces. Then there’s the Curated Fringe, which consists of productions FringeArts has invested money in that are supposed to illustrate the boundaries currently being pushed by contemporary performance art. Usually FringeArts curates a couple locally grown shows by well-known artists and a handful of productions brought from out of state or abroad.

Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s After the Rehearsal/Persona, directed by Ivo van Hove, is one of these Curated shows, resurrected from 2012 and housed in Philadelphia’s cavernous 23rd Street Armory. It is another installation of the process that captures van Hove’s imagination: the dramatization of screenplays, this time of two works by Ingmar Bergman–but not adaptations of the films, van Hove is adamant on that point. He doesn’t even watch the films he’s working on, preferring to take the screenplays as dramatic texts in and of themselves.

That’s good news for me, because I’m going in blind. Everything I know about this play is from FringeArts’ marketing, which I’ve been regurgitating as part of my job working box office for this year’s festival. After the Rehearsal and Persona are films I’ve never seen by a man whose name rings the only faintest of bells, directed by a world-renowned artist who (I’m cringing as I write this) I hadn’t heard of until this piece. I’m not qualified to see this, I think as I abandon my post selling tickets and sneak into the house. Normally a play’s prestige doesn’t intimidate me; I’m excited to see what an artist has to offer, what story they have to tell. But the buzz surrounding this production, coupled with my lack of familiarity and venue’s lack of climate control, has me intellectually insecure and sweating bullets. The Armory is boiling hot; I’m flushed with heat and anxiety about my inevitable obtuseness; and I know I’m trapped in this hot-box of fear for three hours.

But for all that anxiety about not understanding, what I see is a proposal I’ve heard before–trussed up in some of the most beautiful design I’ve seen all year, and conveyed through truly phenomenal performances–but ultimately the stuff of my collegiate late-night naval-gazing. Theatre is life, these (screen)plays insist, and theatre is artificial, therefore life is artificial. Both segments of this production tell me that everything that sculpts our lives–our careers, our relationships, our very emotions–is artificial, constructed to give us a semblance of meaning in a chaotic universe.

Sure. Okay. But then what?

After the Rehearsal focuses its inquiry on Hendrik Vogler, an aging director who’s consumed by his work and preoccupied by the emotional (and, of course, sexual) needs of his ingenue Anna and–in his memory–of Rachel, Anna’s mother and Vogler’s former muse. Vogler is obsessed with the intersection between his art and life: every interaction turns into a scene framed by his narration, every word explicitly underlined as performance. He turns a camera onto Anna as she tries to articulate her frustrations with her work, the resulting image augmenting her expressions and thereby flattening them into meaninglessness. He dims and brightens the lights to suit the mood, plays music to underscore key moments, flings Anna’s body around to position it perfectly for any given moment. The performances are excellent, but the story feels tired: the gender dynamics of a controlling male director versus a mercurial, wildly emotional female actress; the inevitable grafting of artistic need and sexual satisfaction; and–of course–the endlessly repeated assertion that life (and art!) means only what we collectively delude ourselves into believing.

The actors bow. We’re ushered out, our bodies herded with as much consideration as Vogel has shown for Anna, to wait as the set is transformed for Persona. I stew in my dull, aching frustration. It would be better if I was furious, but this is a tale I know all too well, and it exhausts me to realize I’ve been suckered into seeing it again. And for what? Where do I go from the assertion laid before me? Is my cradle rocked, my concept of art shaken? I don’t know. I’m hot and thirsty and I’ve got at least 90 minutes to go.

Twenty minutes later, we take our seats for Persona. This is the story of Elisabeth Vogler, an actress who’s struck dumb in the middle of a performance, and Alma, the idealistic young nurse tasked with bringing her back to health. Persona also underlines the artificiality of society, this time through the gender roles imposed on women. Elisabeth is a friend, a lover, a wife, an actress and now, recently and against her will, a mother. It is this role that breaks her, as her husband’s expectation of her maternal instinct pushes against her abhorrence for her own child. Alma, on the other hand, longs for the formlessness of Elisabeth’s life: as an actress, Elisabeth can be whoever she wants, whereas Alma already finds herself pigeonholed into the role of good girl, despite the voracious sexual appetite that roils within her.

This at least is a story I connect to. After all, I’m a woman trying to figure out how I perform my femininity; a female artist who will someday face the daunting choices of career and family; a human being negotiating my identity from the expectations of my gender and my true(?) desires. These churning, all-too-common conflicts are personified with exquisite performances by Marieke Heebink (Elisabeth, also Rachel) and Gaite Jansen (Alma, also Anna). But again, the work lays bare these questions of performance in gender, questions I know and live every day, without building off them to branch into new levels of conversation.

The centerpiece of Persona is its design by van Hove’s longtime collaborator Jan Versweyveld, epitomized by the transition from Elisabeth’s hospital room to a cabin on a lake that is represented by a stage pool filled with 10,000 gallons of water. The hospital room launches from the downstage edge of the space and the walls drop away one by one, revealing the massive expanse of water and the towering white wall of the distant sky. It’s breathtaking. The world we’ve lived in for over an hour–a box set of gray pegboard populated by furniture in After the Rehearsal and stripped bare for the first half of Persona–has suddenly expanded five, ten times its size. We move from gray hospital corners to the expansive reaches of the sleek white horizon, from metals and walls to water and sky.

Even this work of artistry can’t be allowed to exist as a whole; always we’re reminded of its artificiality. A storm gusts through the space, propelled by giant fans we can clearly see stage left. The sleek, expansive white wall of the horizon is intentionally marred by the outline of a door, broadcasting the entrance of another character later on. Van Hove and Versweyveld are employing no small amount of ironic distance with this design. In After the Rehearsal, Vogler’s bemoans his reliance on what he calls the “trappings” of theatre: “The actor, the word, the spectator [is all theatre needs]. I’m absolutely convinced of that, but I’ve never adhered to it.” An hour later we’re confronted with this sight, undercut by the grousing that came before it. It’s as if the production is saying, All of this is beautiful, but it is patently false. Everything you feel, we have deliberately orchestrated. Your whole life is manipulation, your whole self is a constructed work. And on, and on, and on.

I walk out into the night, a blessed ten degrees cooler than the venue, and I’m thinking about the know-it-all nihilists I knew in school, the ones who would start every argument at ground zero. Life is meaningless, they’d say, cigarette smoke streaming from their sneering mouths. Everything fades and turns to dust. We’re all going to die anyway, so what’s the point of living?

Why are you still alive, then? I would cry, wanting to strangle them. These were arguments I could never win, because there was nowhere to go. How can you argue with “we’re all going to die?” You can’t; it’s an unassailable truth. The question answered itself, impervious to counter-argument, and the askers had positioned themselves just above me, bolstered by their smug awareness that they understood the rules and I did not.

I worry at this production like it’s stuck in my teeth, searching for meaning. As grand as the production is, as visually stunning and wonderfully performed, there’s a puffed-up petulance about it that reminds me of those dead-end conversations I hated so much in college. I must have missed something. There’s no way this group, this artist, is capitalizing on such a cliche. If they were, why would they bother making the piece at all?

Is that the real thrust of this piece? That in spite of knowing its ultimate emptiness, we push on anyway? That seeing the hollowness of the scaffolding doesn’t stop us from building–in fact, it’s the awareness that makes the architecture beautiful? Or am I bending over backwards to apologize for not resonating with a group so renowned?

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