An inclusive celebration of recognition
Article by Jeroen van Wijhe for Theaterkrant
Picture: Carel van Hees
It’s party time at Theater Babel. Paul Röttger is celebrating his thirtieth anniversary as artistic director and is showing off a special performance. In Piazza della vita – a “square of life” – an inclusive group of actors moves past us. We see how thirty-five people of different genders, ages, ethnicities and disabilities live together, have the same desires and encounter the same obstacles.
Theater Babel, formerly known as the Rotterdam Center for Theater, plays a show every year at a different location in Rotterdam. This time it is the former Bonheur Theater, a sunlit venue with an adjacent terrace and windows in the ceiling. One of the actors is singing, another is practicing his dance. Familiar faces are embraced and seated on blue blocks in the room. Then the windows close, the sunlight is replaced by stage light and the performance begins.
Piazza della vita is strongly ritualistic. The outside world is forgotten for a moment and gives way to a space without hierarchies. The room is first ‘cleaned’ with mops, and then explored by two actors with touch sticks. Then follows a succession of sprightly scenes. There is flirting, playing, dancing, singing and fighting. A birth – or the loosening of the umbilical cord – is beautifully portrayed by a boy tied to a woman with a rope. Once freed from the rope, she clambers into the ceiling and the boy is on his own. Actors walk around with roses, leaves and dentures to get acquainted with the audience and each other. A woman seductively pulls off a fellow actor’s shirt, then resolutely chases him away. A screeching sound is heard, the whole group runs up and spontaneously begins to dance. All this under a continuous ‘soundtrack’ of singing. One by one the performers stand in front of a camera and sing in an invented language.
To my right is a large inclined plane, which is climbed by different performers with varying degrees of success. It takes on a religious connotation when an actor stands at the top in his underwear, poses, and notices that the group below him, imitates him. This Jesus figure fits neatly into the beauty ideal of the West: young, male, white, thin and a body with no visible limitations. Behind him can be seen the projections of the singers, who cannot or will not conform to this standard. We hear all kinds of sounds – from accomplished operatic singing to careful mumbling, but most interesting are the unrehearsed facial expressions that betray shyness, pleasure or excitement. The imperfections are far more exciting than the prescribed norm.
It is this thin line between normative and non-normative beauty, the acting and the sincere reaction that Piazza della vita plays with a lot. When an actress tumbles off the plane with a fellow actor, there is nothing acted about the laughter. When a fellow actor offers dentures and is rejected, the rejection is painfully palpable. After all, this is about fears and desires that we have all felt at one time or another. Thus, this anniversary party also becomes a celebration of recognition.
This article appeared on Theaterkrant on October 14, 2018.