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Review: Discourse Without Grammar Displays Trap Door’s Ingenuity in Performance Art

Marzena Bukowska in the forest. Screenshot from Discourse Without Grammar.

Matei Vişniec’s plays are a bit bewildering and disorienting. They‘re theater of the absurd with a twist. But Trap Door Theatre can be counted on to turn the work of this Romanian/French playwright into intriguing visual productions. Their latest, Vişniec’s Discourse Without Grammar, is aptly named. There is dialogue in this art piece, but it’s more of a word salad. Words carrying great significance are spoken in no logical order. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is considered theater of the absurd and may seem puzzling on first viewing. But Didi and Gogo do talk to each other in sentences.

Discourse Without Grammar is a fascinating visual pastiche, a modern vaudeville show. Directed and edited by Skye Fort, 11 performers in five countries have created video performances that “investigate hollow words, empty promises, and collaboration without connection.” There’s language spoken, sung, etched on gravestones and carved in sand. The only actual sentences are spoken by an official voiceover announcing a test of the emergency broadcast system (remember those?).

The text, translated by Jozefina Komporaly, is excerpted from Vişniec’s Cabaret of Words. The Romanian-born playwright, who sought political refuge in France in 1987 after his plays were regularly censored in his home country, now lives in Paris. And since the fall of the tyrannical Ceausescu regime, his works have been honored in Romania.

Discourse opens with a long sequence by Marzena Bukowska. She dresses in baggy pants, a red jacket with blue feather boa, black homburg and red nose for a wander through an old forest. She finds a cemetery where she whispers “history, perhaps” and places red plastic hearts on gravestones, mimicking the Jewish practice of placing stones on gravestones as an act of remembrance. She walks through a tunnel, down grassy stairs, then finds comic masks planted like flowers, and detritus that reminds her of “ancestors!” It’s a charming work of performance art.

You’ll also see Venice Averyheart, in a long black dress, dance gracefully in a dramatically lit kitchen, inspiring us with language such as, “we united however say you I.” She ends by putting on a black Covid mask. Emily Lotspeich appears in several short pieces, made up with Clara Bow lips. She performs a laundry routine with a one-piece washer-dryer, and later exercises with furniture. In another kitchen, Assaf Hochman is in a long silver wig, robe, kneehigh red socks and a wooden spoon around his neck that becomes his mic. He inflates a green balloon, which speaks to us as part of a sporadic lecture about change.

Carl Wisniewski, dressed in black suit, white shirt and tie, does a yoga warrior pose and jumping jacks on an empty street. His street scene also has a small table and two chairs where he sits to drink tea. In spooky lighting, he plays a video game while assuring us that “mobilization is essential. It’s important.” A pink balloon is involved before he appears on an old Chicago bridge (I couldn’t place the location) for continued imprecations that we mobilize.

Another intense sequence places Neema Lahon, dressed at first in black leather, then other black outfits, as she runs on a path through a field, through a tunnel, over a bridge, and through several different narrow hallways or tunnels with brightly colored images or screens on both walls. She has a white balloon. Are balloons symbolic of speech?

One can argue this isn’t theater because it lacks plot, but theater of the absurd has long suffered similar criticism. Trap Door Theatre and director Skye Fort have concocted a delicious series of visual performances. You can enjoy viewing them as you might enjoy viewing art in a gallery, and ponder the significance of the words that receive primary emphasis in the various sequences.

Other actors featured are Jenny Beacraft, Anarosa Butler, Magdalena Gera, Tia Pinson and Matty Robinson. Costume design is by Rachel Sypniewski lighting by Richard Norwood, sound by Michael Mejia and makeup by Zsofia Otvos.

Discourse’s running time is about 65 minutes. It’s available (no closing date) for $15 on Vimeo.com.  Or check it out and get there from the Trap Door website.

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