Next Wave Festival Review: 300 el x 50 el x 30 el

Before the curtain rises at BAM’s Harvey Theater on this wordless, whimsical and haunting hour-long theater piece cryptically entitled “300 el x 50 el x 30 el,”  a huge screen projects a sick,  long-haired old man lying in bed in a cluttered rustic room next to a bird cage containing a live pigeon. We know he’s sick because he has electrodes stuck to his body, and a tube leading to an IV bag. 

When the curtain rises, we see the old man remove the tape and tubes, but we only see this on screen. He’s nowhere to be found on the stage. All we see on stage is a poor and nearly empty village: Downstage, there’s a dirty pond and a field where nothing grows; upstage, six dilapidated and shuttered shacks. 

The man, we eventually figure out, is inside the first of these shacks, filmed by a camera operator on a trolley, pushed by two other men. The camera soon leaves that man and travels inside the other shacks one by one. We glimpse a man ineptly preparing dinner for his family; a woman practicing the piano before her bored teacher; a group of four men, one of whom is playing darts; a naked man casually masturbating next to a woman who doesn’t seem to notice; a man in a military uniform setting off firecrackers. The camera makes another tour of all six interiors, and another and another – each time, the inhabitants are doing something different. The dart player, for example, puts an apple on his head, while one of the other men points a gun at it. In a later tour, we see one of the men bandaging the dart player/apple holder’s head. The old man with the caged pigeon disappears entirely (at least I couldn’t find him), and is replaced in his home by a child.

Sometimes one of the characters travels outside their shack, and we see them onstage.  There is a romance, apparently between the piano player and the firecracker man, although it doesn’t seem to go well. 

Over the course of the hour, accompanied by a range of music from classical to punk, we witness the burying of a dead pigeon, the unburying and lifting into the air of a dead sheep, the falling down of clumps of dirt from the sky, the burning down of one of the shacks, and a gradual venturing outdoors until, in what one must consider a climax, there is an extended and vigorous bout of calisthenics by scores of people filling the stage.

What is this all about? 

Is the title a clue? 300 el x 50 el x 30 el are the dimensions of Noah’s Ark as described in the Bible.  Some water does overflow inside some of the shacks, but not enough to cause a world-saving evacuation. Maybe such a catastrophe is pending; it’s threatened…and the group calisthenics is actually communal praying

This is the third play  I saw in the month of September (after My Onliness and Four Saints in Three Acts) in which meaning is not just elusive; it’s apparently beside the point.  

 “300 el x 50 el x 30 el” is a visually arresting theatrical installation. It’s a communal experience, much as in the Public Theater’s Public Works projects; the cast is comprised of about a half dozen core performers, some dozen “guest artists” and more than sixty “local ensemble performers.”

“300 el x 50 el x 30 el”  is also something of an intriguing experiment in aesthetics and technology. The interplay between the haunting, dark and often empty set on stage and the cramped, weirdly busy space on screen creates a tension that’s central to the piece. It wouldn’t work in just one of the two art forms. 

That’s not to say that everybody would think it works now. But much of the crowd in Brooklyn did give it a standing ovation on its first of four nights (running through October 1), the opening production of BAM’s Next Wave Festival 2022. And FC Bergman, the Belgium-based theater collective that created the piece, has been presenting  “300 el x 50 el x 30 el”  since 2011, taking it to Amsterdam and Athens, Krakau and London. It may be next wave to Brooklyn, but in Europe it’s old hat.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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