Posted by: Anya Martin | October 25, 2008

The Department Opens and Closes in the Last Weekend of PIFOF

I arrived at the New Hazlett Theater on Thursday night to the buzz of yet another sold out show. The Department by the Jo Stromgren Kompani opened with much anticipation on the closing weekend of the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts.

The Department

The Department


The show begins with a bleary-eyed office worker typing monotonously in the green florescent haze of an unfeeling office. Design aspects such as an antiquated typewriter, outdated paper files, and vintage costumes create a kind of a cold war era feel. This context is supported by the “language” of the play, which is an invented gibberish full of Eastern European and Russian affectations like deep throated “r’s” and strong “s” sounds.

Government middle-men anxiously follow orders from above, as they work seemingly miles beneath the earth’s surface. The drudgery and underlying fear of such an existence seems as if it would be the only topic of the night’s performance. Except it seems that even forgotten communist office staffers need “coffee breaks,” as the workers erupt in random games, bizarre movements, and moments of discovery about their surroundings and the world beyond their concrete bungalow.

The show’s real success lies in the relationships between these hapless workers. The four male actors, which make up the ensemble create a charisma on-stage that is unmistakable. Though the language is nonsense they are clearly listening and communicating. Scenes and moments are often anchored by a somewhat recognizable word. After the workers are critiqued on their command performance of radio show broadcast, one is accused of being too, “monotone-ya” much too his surprise and heart- broken chagrin.

However, the most influential and moving moments of the show transpired when there were no “words” as all. Truly the highlight of the performance is a spontaneous dance that erupts after a shared meal of bread. Though the actors are clearly not professional dancers, they move with a captivating and awkward grace. The choreography includes astounding balletic lifts and stunningly beautiful stage pictures.

I also enjoyed how every piece of the stage was incorporated into the blocking of the show in continually surprising and transformative ways. It’s clear that the show evolved through committed and masterfully crafted improvisations on the part of the actors and director. This creation process yielded delightful and unexpected moments of exuberant and quirky interactions between characters.

However, despite all of The Department’s fascinating elements, the sum of the parts doesn’t seem to equal a whole. While I greatly respected many of the theatrical ideas and goals within the piece, often scenes within the show felt repetitive, and the show itself a little under-edited. I found myself feeling unengaged from the actions and characters’ motivations on stage. The rules of this world felt too ambiguous to build enough momentum to completely carry the show or the audience through any kind of journey or greater revelation about the world on stage or off.

Despite its flaws, however, the The Department seems to fit perfectly into the PIFOF cannon for its exploration and style both in the creative process and final presentation. Its attempt to investigate the need for childish wonder and play despite all obstacles, seems to ring true in a peculiar way with the work of Kassys and even Teatro De Los Sentidos.


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