New York

Jan Fabre

“When the will does the work of the imagination, the result is rhetoric,” concluded William Butler Yeats. So much was so willfully wrongheaded about Jan Fabre’s The Power of Theatrical Madness, a much-heralded example of European avant-garde theater, that it’s hard to know how to begin analyzing this mass of didactic bombast parading as vision. One might begin with the overall air of smug self-importance. From its title, through four and a half hours of pretentious action, to its ludicrous finale, in which a nude woman was spanked while shouting out that very title (thus adding it to the list of “important” avant-garde theater events repeatedly recited during the production). The Power of Theatrical Madness spent most of its energy insisting on its own strength. Of course, any knockout performance doesn’t simply announce its impact: it earns it, by display. But this performance flailed away with a grab bag of tired, pseudointellectual tricks to state rhetorically what it could not create theatrically.

This arrogance showed itself in a welter of cultural references. The performance was staged in front of huge projections of classical paintings and accompanied by fragments of Richard Wagner (the Liebestod, of course) and Richard Strauss. (There was also an innocuous electronic score by Wim Mertens). Fabre might have been trying to both place The Power of Theatrical Madness in the historical continuum of these power-mongering blasts from the past and to annex their assumed intrinsic “masterpiece” force by appropriating and recontextualizing their content. But their deconstruction didn’t create any energy; Fabre seemed content to merely bludgeon the audience with visual and aural quotes.

Fabre’s principal performance-action idea seemed aimed at brute provocation via neo-theater-of-cruelty schtick. Knives were held against bare flesh; two nude men in crowns waltzed; other performers appeared to stomp to death large live frogs, or smashed stacks of plates after carefully balancing them. Fabre went all out for shock effects, but the performance’s utter lack of humor, its showy, strained physicality, and its self-congratulatory air were so off-putting that the intended provocations were actually either boring or unintentionally hilarious.

Fabre’s version of sexual relations was equally brutal and often ludicrously literal: a man repeatedly pushed a woman off the stage; men exhausted themselves by carrying alternately gamboling and collapsing women; a woman performed basic ballet exercises to the point of real exhaustion. This monochromatic meanness made Pina Bausch’s relentless vision seem like The Honeymooners by comparison. No doubt Fabre would like to have claimed these misogynistic maneuvers as metaphors for the current state of relations between men and women, but like the rest of the piece, they meant everything and nothing: sure, there’s violence in the air—what about it? As performed by Fabre’s shock troops, these acts were mute tests of physical stamina, crudely making their obvious points with dumb insistence like some kind of nightmarish est theatre.

Throughout much of the performance, the cast kept their backs to the audience. It's a measure of the weakness of Fabre’s ideas that such a minor gesture could be thought provocative. Like its conceptual kin, Hans Jürgen Syberberg’s windy, “important” performance essays, The Power of Theatrical Madness lay inert under paralyzing arrogance.

John Howell