“You will hear an unbelievable true story,” one of the three actors from the Republic of Slovenia on a stage designed to look like a makeshift bunker, tells us at the beginning of the play entitled “Ich kann nicht anders,” which is having a brief run at La MaMa; its fourth and final performance is today at 5 p.m.
“Some of you might find it boring, which will mean that you have chosen the wrong event for this evening. But the rest of you — and there will hopefully be quite a few — will find this intriguing, maybe even inspiring.”
I was too uncertain about what was going on in the hour that followed to feel inspired, but I certainly wasn’t bored.
As explained in the digital program, this fifth production of Beton Ltd., which is what the three performers call their ten-year-old Slovenia-based theater troupe, is intended to turn the audience into voyeurs witnessing the “selected intimate moments” of these three people’s everyday life. In the show itself, though, one of the three tells us that it takes place in 1991, during the Ten Day War between Slovenia and the Yugoslav Army shortly after Slovenia had established its independence.
And so, the three sit around eating pizza or playfully gobbling and spitting out those Styrofoam packing peanuts or talking casually, when suddenly lights flash, they become alarmed, take out guns, and take cover behind a stack of boxes. At times, they are suddenly attending to bloody wounds.
Just to make this weirder, amid the so-called casual conversation about politics or sex or art or getting older, they recite many stylized monologues, in which the performers talk about one other in front of one other as if the others aren’t there.
Mixed in with the casual everyday living and the tense crisis mode, is a deep dive into often obscure erudition. Let’s take that title. You may have wondered why it’s in German when the official languages of Slovenia are Slovene, followed by Hungarian and Italian, and the three performers at LaMaMa are speaking in English.
Ich kann nicht anders – which can be translated as “I can’t do otherwise” – is part of a famous quote attributed to the 16th century theologian Martin Luther, at a crucial moment when he spurred the Protestant Reformation. We can infer that they are referring to a moment when things are about to change.
The mix of erudition and in-your-face theatricality can be jarring. In one fascinating exchange – which one senses may be at the heart of their enterprise — Katarina Stegnar says:
“You know, Barnes* wondered… how could one turn disaster into art? Today this is done totally automatically. A nuclear power plant explodes and a year later the play opens in London. There is a tsunami on Sri Lanka and there will be a book and a film inspired by the book and a book inspired by the film and Naomi Watts attached to production. There is a war in Syria and it’s opening the Under the Radar festival. If you want to understand a disaster you have to imagine it, which is why we all need Ai Weiwei. In the end disaster leads to art. Maybe disasters are good for art.”
Then Primož Bezjak replies:
“Look: Art was never innocent; it is important for people to have something to talk about. Millions of people visit centers of contemporary art all the time even if they hate it. Just so they can talk about it, just so they know what is contemporary, so they can turn their noses up….”
While they’re speaking, Branko Jordan is behind them wearing only his underpants, which are soaked with blood, then he strips off his underwear, and gives himself a sponge bath using water from a bucket.
The other two strip off all their clothes, and join him in nude bathing.
The nudity here is casual and incessant.
I can’t tell you what “Ich kann nicht anders” adds up to, or even that it is a cohesive work of theater. There is such a frequent disconnect between what the performers are saying and what they are doing that it seemed to me to approach a parody of avant-garde theater. Then again, I have to confess that much avant-garde theater strikes me as approaching self-parody.
That the insights and pleasures of “Ich…” are scattershot – that the piece feels random — may be its main point. In the last discussion of the show, the three talk about how in their youth they had “real discussions. And it was ambitious: who we are, what we need to do…I don’t know where this meaning has fucking disappeared to. And why. “
* The performer was referring to Julian Barnes, who wrote a piece for the New Yorker in 1989 entitled “Shipwreck,” which riffs on Théodore Géricault 1817 painting “Scene of Shipwreck” (also called the Raft of Medusa) which mediates on this question ‘ How do you turn catastrophe into art?
Nowadays the process is automatic. A nuclear plant explodes? We’ll have to justify it and forgive it, this catastrophe, however minimally. Why did it happen, this mad act of Nature, this crazed human moment? Well, at least it produced art. Perhaps, in the end, that’s what catastrophe is for.” It’s worth noting that Barnes’ story, which was collected in his book A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, was adapted to the stage.