Ontroerend Goed’s “Are we not drawn onward…” at Under the Radar 2023

Heading into BAM’s Fishman Space for Ontroerend Goed, part of the Public’s 2023 Under the Radar Festival, felt like finally getting to a long-delayed date. I’d been looking forward to catching the Belgian company since I first missed them with their career-making The Smile Off Your Face back in 2009 at Seattle’s Big Magnet festival. (I have an interview with director Alexander Devrient from back in 2012 in a digital drawer somewhere, from when their Audience was scheduled to hit New York’s Skirball Center before being cancelled following Sandy’s walloping of the city.)

Unfortunately, the ten-year wait wound up not feeling like being worth the effort. As the show’s grammatically-tortured, palindromic title, Are we not drawn onward to new erA, suggests, a big reversal is in store for spectators. In my case, it wasn’t the one I think the company wanted.

The performance begins with a mostly bare stage save for a small tree, maybe five feet tall, ripe with a single gleaming apple. As the circle of light expands beyond this Edenic image, it eventually reveals the form of a woman lying prostrate upstage. She awakens, wanders about seemingly mystified, making a single indistinguishable, monosyllable sound, until a man (it’s worth noting here that the costumes are pedestrian and contemporary) wanders in. They greet, awkwardly, and eventually he goes to the tree and plucks the apple, which they then share in a series of awkward and seemingly counterintuitive bites (why would an apple taste so bad?).

I won’t belabor the description. As its first 35 minutes unfold, four other characters are revealed. A sort of man-child in shorts with a balloon on a string rolls in from under the upstage curtain. A woman in a skirt wanders in; another man; another woman. Insofar as they speak to one another, it’s gibberish. As the initial pair consume the apple, a man begins destroying the tree, tearing it apart first to offer tidbits of leaves to the woman in a skirt, then for the sake of destruction. More gibberish is exchanged. Then plastic bags in a kaleidoscope of colors rain down from overhead. The man-child has a momentary fit. One of the women tries to help him. As he mentally convulses, he manages to spit out in comprehensible English: “Guys, guys, guys, guys…I think we’re doing a good job.”

By this point, I think most people had picked up on the conceit. Aside from this one outburst, which was met with incomprehension by the other characters, all the “gibberish” text was English memorized phonetically in reverse. The central device and conceit is further revealed when the tree-destroying man starts pulling immense pieces of a human statue on stage in the most counter-intuitive fashion possible. As the chaos of environmental detritus (plastic bags) stacks up, the cast assembles the statue into a 15-foot-tall colossus. Then, with apparently little else to do, they drag out hoses disgorging clouds of haze (and eventually the smoke machines themselves) until the stage is consumed in fog. The curtains close, leaving a single performer before the audience. Another tortured monologue of gibberish, and then the inevitable break: “This is where we end,” we’re informed, in finally comprehensible English. Then everything goes backward.

The second half of the show is just that: a video recording of the first half playing in reverse. The air is cleared of smoke; the exultation of man amidst the detritus of his world is dismantled and dragged off piece by piece; the lengthy gibberish dialog is reversed into a broad strokes debate over whether the bags need to be eliminated. Eventually the skirt-wearing woman, in an act of benevolent telekinesis, simply causes them to ascend back into the heavens. (I suppose the elimination of plastic bags does entail some magical thinking.) The tree is painstakingly re-assembled, the apple vomited up piece by piece. And then the performers, as the work completes, exit themselves from the stage one by one, until the awkward encounter between the first/last man and woman – now rendered a poignant goodbye – plays out, and woman, left alone and prostrate, disappears into the darkness leaving only a single Edenic image of tree and apple.

It’s a bravura performance from the actors, I grant it that. A fantastic and difficult trick to pull off, which they did within their own performance purview. But as a piece I was left with the dispiriting sense that the show doesn’t earn its beats. First, compositionally it’s pretty weak (a friend compared the staging to “directing exercises”). Such is the problem when the primary motivation for anything to happen in one moment is so that it can be played in reverse later. Dramatically the show is a balancing act – in order to get away with something that seems unnatural or weird (such as speaking gibberish), it wants to offer an easily readable counterpart (plastic bags), offsetting the uncanny with the mundane long enough to set up its big reversal. If anything, though, the show goes on too long, giving away the reversal long before it happens, and extending the video ending so long that any “wow” factor they earn for making it work wears off before the digital reel runs out.

But for all that said and done, this is a political show, about big ideas and concepts: the environmental crisis, the Anthropocene, so on and on. And that’s where it gets even more problematic, because Are we not drawn onward to new erA is somehow both painfully blunt and dangerously vague at the same time.

Blunt because the relationship between form and content is basically hitting you over the head. Actors speaking gibberish while playing with piles of plastic bags? Sure. It’s an indictment of waste culture, which makes no sense anyway so of course it doesn’t matter what they’re saying. The world is destroyed by people who then erect a statue in their own honor amid the ruins? On the nose! Then reverse it all and their speech is tortured but comprehensible when discussing whether they can really live with giving up all the pretty plastic bags? A salient point is being made about the challenges we face trying to have even the most basic conversations about meaningful environmental policy, if you think about it.

This is what the show clearly wants us to see through its devices and narrative. That concern with the environment is a moral good is assumed, so the performance is a take it or leave it proposition which you either read sympathetically or not. But considering the show further, beyond its broad strokes, reveals a vague but more morally dubious theme. To call the initial image “Edenic” is to read it through a human lens: the garden of Eden, the idyllic world into which humans emerge in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But the show doesn’t end that way. It seems to call entirely for the elective removal of humans from the world. And the violence required to achieve that is hinted at in the show, when one of the performers exits with the rest of the cast making finger-gun gestures toward him, even as he mimics the same gesture under his jaw. It’s one of the moments that made the least sense in the first half, but reversed it’s a clear suggestion of…well, leaving to off yourself after you’ve cleaned up the mess you made.

Ontroerend Goed made a show a couple years ago called The World Without Us (2016), and while I can’t speak to the content of that piece, that is the ending Are we not drawn onward to new erA proposes. In doing so, however intentionally or not, it flirts with some pretty controversial ideas well beyond the scope of its broad strokes message. Various deep ecology and radical environmental groups proposing the human population itself as an inherent problem have been accused (albeit problematically) as engaging in “eco-fascism.” Both romantic and anthropocentric in itself (since it chooses to locate humanity somehow outside of rather than a component of nature), whatever merits we might find in such arguments, they necessarily discount issues of racial and social justice. All of which is to suggest that had any of the six performers been other than white, it might have been impossible to read the show the same way.

I’m not trying to accuse Ontroerend Goed of embracing any of this, mind you; like I said, it’s part of the show’s problematic vagueness that it touches on issues and raises questions that it has no capacity to address, being otherwise so bluntly structured to achieve the singular gesture of being wholly reversible. But sadly that speaks to its substantial dramatic and compositional failure: If you put a garden of Eden onstage, the next logical thing is for a woman and man to show up; if you reverse that action, you probably should have thought about why they would leave it, and what that implies.

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