Live review: Betontanc & Umka.lv: Show Your Face!
In light of the Arizona Safeway shootout, one scene in the Latvian-Slovenian performance Show Your Face! is particularly unsettling. Seven performers leap in turns on top of the long, black-cloaked table that serves as the show’s set and footlight housing and fall backward in sync with loud gunshots of crisp fidelity. This happens about as many times as Jared Lee Loughner discharged his Glock 19 in Tuscon on January 8.
It’s not a response to recent events; Show Your Face! premiered back in 2006. In fact, a synopsis in the program specifically confines the plot to the 20th century. Branko, an “everyman” with no face (played by a child’s hooded snowsuit the performers puppet), “tests the limits of society” as he attempts to outrun various monsters and agents of oppression played by both objects (kid-sized flippers for swimming, a Slinky) and humans, after a mysterious phone call warns him of their pursuit. A beautiful woman (Katarina Stegnar, recalling Franka Potente’s Marie in the Bourne films) helps him out, and he comes upon an elderly revolutionary named Lady Rosa Luxemburg Monroe (a handkerchief wearing tiny glasses). A flashback, the action calls the accuracy of a voiced-over prologue into question. (As explained during the talk-back, the show was written in the one language its entire creative team speaks: English.)
Nested in the suspense of Dr. Richard Kimble-as-onesie vs. state-sanctioned persecution are a series of vignettes tackling a host of subjects, from sexual abuse by Catholic priests to genocide to sensational journalism. Satire, beautifully simple solutions and the show’s small scale temper its sprawl; under the direction of Ljubljana native Matjaž Pograjc, once a dancer, Show Your Face! is, appropriately, as disciplined and precise as military protocol. (At the start, the cast takes the stage like a special-forces squad, marching on in black wearing headlamps and wireless microphones.) Cramped, chaotic physical-theater scenes like an undercranked fist-fight and a narrow escape from a city bus are glorious, appearing both spontaneous and cinematic. Branko Potočan, formerly of Ultima Vez and the main character’s namesake, is the choreographer.
The show’s musical score, by former Laibach collaborators Silence and Uģis Vītiņš, performed live, leans heavily on its theme (post-show discussion revealed it was composed in ten days). But its romanticism and swoon suit this slippery melodrama-as-manifesto, with honeyed vocals à la David Bowie circa Heathen and raspy, yearning solos for saxophone.
Impeccably synchronized sound effects (by Jure Vlahovič), lighting shifts (by Tomaž Štrucl) and the actions of the ensemble bring this boilerplate odyssey to vivid life; though they rest on tropes, each scene feels ecstatically new. This immediacy is also a result of the show’s aggressive politics: At midpoint, its script steps through the fourth wall to berate us for our wastefulness, complacency, cowardice, and fondness for “activist” gestures as hollow as its main character. “This performance is not about patting someone on the back,” a statement from the artists reads. “This performance is the final judgment for us all, because we allowed ourselves to forget.”
We are the puppet show, it tells us. And it does so with such elegance and eloquence that it’s hard to leave the theater feeling otherwise.
The Chicago debut of both Ljubljana’s Betontanc (buh-TONE-tahnce) and Riga’s Umka.lv, Show Your Face! repeats tonight and tomorrow afternoon at the Museum of Contemporary Art.