Town Hall Motors

Es Brent (It burns, 1992) was Gilgul’s second production, but it had all the relentless invention and shocking urgency of a first encounter—as if Barrie Kosky, the group’s director, and his actors had rediscovered their faculties in a flood of speech and action. Gilgul’s The Dybbuk, 1991, was encyclopedic: a combination of high-volume Holocaust vaudeville, cabbalist ritual, German expressionist cinema, and visions from the book of Ezekiel. These elements were collaged into Solomon Anski’s play, composed on the eve of the Russian Revolution and re-presented in the draughty space of this huge old garage. Es Brent was even more eclectic: Elie Wiesel’s The Trial of God, 18th-century mystic Rabbi Nahman’s fairy tales, the book of Job, and the masked carnival of Purim were condensed into a highly stylized narrative broken by songs about pogrom, sung in Yiddish with raucous piano accompaniment.

The metaphor of fire was central to the production, representing both the obscenity of annihilation and mystical distillation. The narrative centers on a tiny Polish village, where, on the eve of Purim in 1649, a group of minstrels arrive at an inn owned by the only survivors of a massacre the previous year. In a mood more forsaken than chosen, the players and innkeeper conduct a trial of God, accusing Him of indifference and cruelty. The innkeeper is the prosecutor, the players are the judges, and a mysterious stranger is the defense. Outside, a mob is poised to begin a final assault.

In his notes for the play, Kosky refers to Walter Benjamin’s famous description of the angel of history, whose face is turned toward the past where a pile of debris grows towards the sky. This sense of static history collided with the company’s constant action. Thus, words were shouted or chanted and the actors’ movements were either frenetic or frozen in dramatically lit tableaux for considerable lengths of time. In The Dybbuk, Kosky’s four actors were forced to move around ceaselessly: they paraded in chorus lines, tumbled across the concrete floor, endured hosing down with freezing water and enacted an exorcism. At the start of Es Brent, the troupe ran towards the audience along an avenue of candles stretching from the depths of the theater’s disused wings. The actors continually appeared and then disappeared into darkness, but without the earlier production’s cathartic climax. This was, instead, a director’s theater in which characters swapped roles or disappeared: one of the players became the innkeeper’s dead wife, who in turn metamorphosed into the messenger of Death, a Catholic priest who repeatedly tried to convert the troupe to Christianity. Architect Peter Corrigan’s austere set was like a decrepit gymnasium of wooden palisades and gravel screenings. Facing the audience, a large wooden box with a curtained front served at different times as a bar, an altar, a tabernacle, and the base for shaky-constructivist scaffolding onto which the actors climbed.

The many moments of stasis in Es Brent were almost unbearably poignant as, for example, when conical-hatted judges posed like puppets in a shooting gallery. Then, the gap between plans (divine and human) and results (the massacre about to occur) was clearly obvious. Kosky imaged this gap repeatedly: actors were suspended in mid-air; time was stopped when the action froze; the jury’s verdict was postponed until Gilgul’s next play. At the end of the performance the troupe all crouched within the wooden box, calling out softly through a mesh screen. This prop summarized Kosky’s method. Repeatedly baiting the narrative, he forced his audience into an awareness of the open-sided nature of the theater and the mutability of consciousness: outside the theater a truck thundered past, an ambulance siren sounded. The box, finally the only source of light in the theater, was at the same time Charon’s boat, an underground call, and an oven.

Charles Green