Jan Fabre/Eugeniusz Knapik

A singer meticulously makes his way across a stage riddled with upright scissors, stuck into the floor; grabbing a pair, he hurls them into the air where they pass through a beam of light, sparkle briefly, and disappear.

Das Glas im kopf wird vom Glas, 1990, is the first part of a projected trilogy entitled The Minds of Helena Troubleyn, written and directed by Jan Fabre, with music by Eugeniusz Knapik. Indicative of the strengths and weaknesses of the production, the scene described above constitutes a stunning visual image, but the effect is spoiled when we realize that the singer will continue his laborious pacing about the stage until all of the nearly 100 pairs of scissors have been disposed of. Our original fascination turns to boredom as Fabre’s theatrical conceit becomes excruciatingly predictable.

Throughout the opera, Fabre reveals himself as a master of beginnings and conclusions. Yet, the terrain in between—the theatricalization of time—neutralizes the spectacular visual effects that he so painstakingly constructs. Unlike Robert Wilson, whose shadow looms large over Fabre’s productions, the Belgian artist is defeated by the concept of duration. Where Wilson is able to dynamize an actor’s walk from one side of the stage to the other, in Fabre’s hands action inevitably dissipates. This is the kind of theater that looks better in photographs, where the temporal element is not apparent.

In Fabre’s The Power of Theatrical Madness, 1985–86, the repetition seemed less tedious. Perhaps this was due to the informal character of the piece, in which, over the course of more than four hours, the audience was encouraged to go in and out of the theater. Once the premise of a particular scene was accepted, the need to see it through seemed less compelling. In this earlier production Fabre worked effectively with the concept of a theater piece in the process of self-destructing, whereas in Das Glas the rigor and sense of exploration is lost.

Knapik’s music contributes to the feeling of purposelessness that characterizes Das Glas. Recalling at various points the music of Bernard Hermann, Krzysztof Penderecki, Anton Webern, and Igor Stravinsky, it never goes beyond a kind of plodding serialism. Gripping in spots, it generally functions as background to Fabre’s stage direction. Compared to his earlier collaborations with Wim Mertens, or his recent use of music by the Doors, this work is curiously devoid of energy.

This production has its extraordinary moments: the rush of the chorus from the back of the stage to its very edge; the levitation of Helena to a frightening height; the obsessive use of “Bic” blue, realized here more successfully than in Fabre’s gallery exhibitions; and the sheer physicality of some of the dance sequences. What these moments have in common is a sense of both physical and artistic risk. They reveal Fabre as an artist attempting to go beyond the very limits he has set up for himself. In the end, however, this is an uncharacteristically safe production, the strictures and pretensions of which are sorely evident.

Michael Tarantino