True Fluency In a Language Newly Made
Predictably, perhaps 20 minutes into "Hashirigaki," Heiner Goebbels's delectably mystifying theatrical tone poem, a couple of dozen people, evidently befuddled and impatient, left the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday night. Too bad for them.
Granted, the 90-minute work submerges an audience in an exotic pool of music, image and text that is certainly without the life raft of literal meaning that some theatergoers need to keep their interest afloat. But if you are willing to be seduced, the bewitching and breathtakingly eclectic spirit of the show, which runs through Sunday, can make you feel fluent in a new language.
The Japanese word hashirigaki refers both to a flowing, cursive script and to the idea of talking while walking; the word suggests a forward motion on the one hand and the attempt to capture a moment on the other. And though the show has no plot in the conventional sense, it does render abstractly - and with great beauty - this conflict between life's evanescence and the natural human yearning to give it some kind of concrete meaning. And it does build to a kind of sweetly melancholy climax of resignation.
In this service, Mr. Goebbels has braided theatrical elements from several cultures and decades to create a pulsing, undulating stream of sounds and images. The most well-publicized of these are the show's text, which comes from Gertrude Stein's seminally modernist epic, "The Making of Americans" (which Stein completed in 1911 though it wasn't published until 1925), and is delivered in fitful snippets by the show's three performers; and part of the score, for which Mr. Goebbels has appropriated five songs written by Brian Wilson for the 1966 Beach Boys album, "Pet Sounds."
These sources would seem so culturally disparate as to be random, but the coupling is crafty and meaningful. Stein's mammoth novel is about four generations of a family, but what interests Mr. Goebbels is its passages of purposefully stylized prose, which employ limited vocabulary, uncustomary sentence structure and incantatory repetitions to create a sense of what the novelist and critic William H. Gass calls the "progressive present." A typical example: "Certainly very many come together to see something, to hear something, to do something, to see some see something, to see some hear something, to hear some hear something, to feel something . . . "
Similarly, the music of the Beach Boys, with the insistent, lurching rhythms and droning harmonics that are redolent of the ocean, is equally suggestive of the existential paradox of moving forward and standing still.
But the Beach Boys and Gertrude Stein actually constitute only a small part of the overall aesthetic of "Hashirigaki." The show is a hypnotic collage of effects, with Mr. Goebbels orchestrating the striking work of his designers. The set and lighting designer Klaus Grünberg, working largely against a concave backdrop, makes a series of lusciously evocative stage pictures punctuated by spectacular effects, like the Cy Twombly-esque scribbles of light that seem to fill up three dimensions on the stage.
Two-thirds of the way through, the performers seem to build an American town on the stage using cardboard cutouts, complete with an automobile, a church and a courthouse. Behind it, the backdrop shows a vast, vague mountainscape against the sky depicted in gloriously colored, modulating daylight. Weighted bells drop from the rafters on bungee cords and hang in the air, pendulously, like blimps. It's intensely lovely.
The costumes of Florence von Gerkan - in one solo ballet, the dancer is swaddled in a silvery, cellophanelike cocoon - make especially humorous use of the size differences in the elegantly witty performers, one of whom is tiny (Yumiko Tanaka), one a half-foot taller (Marie Goyette) and one a half-foot taller again (Charlotte Engelkes). And the sound, by Willi Bopp, is as haunting as it is eclectic.
For one thing, the actresses are of different nationalities - Japanese, Canadian and Swedish, respectively - and their differently accented English becomes part of the score. For another, much of the show's original music, by Mr. Goebbels, is in an Asian mode. And it is played by the performers on various instruments: stringed, like the traditional Japanese koto and samisen; electronic, like the theremin, the sound machine that specializes in spooky wah-wah effects; keyboarded, like the harmonium (a sort of pump organ); and percussive, from the hanging bells and an earthbound gong to finger cymbals and castanets.
It is also pertinent that Mr. Goebbels is not afraid of quietude. In this enthralling work of performance art, the language is heard.
The New York Times (US), 21 March 2003