The scent of dirt is thick in the BAM Harvey Theater. It even filters through a KN95 as you enter the auditorium from the lobby. Breathe it in, folks: it’s the smell of the BAM Next Wave Festival.
Kicking it off this year is a hybrid movement-theatre piece from the Belgian theater collective FC Bergman, 300 el x 50 el x 30 el. The dirt covers the stage floor on top of which sit six small houses around a pond where a man is fishing. As it begins, a camera crew slides along a track built behind the houses, exposing their inner workings one by one. The hidden lives inside these cottages become public to the audience on a huge screen hanging over the pond. An old man detaches an IV and stumbles out into the muck, a woman is served dinner by her husband and daughter, a piano lesson takes place next to a dingy bathtub, a man absently tugs on the end of his flaccid penis while a woman crouches over a toilet, a group of men throw darts, a man in a helmet surveys a scale model of the village and tucks a mini explosive into one of the roofs.
In a little over an hour, 300 el x 50 el x 30 el shows us enough about these people to make them fully realized residents of this town. There is no dialogue, just the rotating camera peeking into the homes on each turn around the perimeter. The title refers to the dimensions of Noah’s ark and there is a pervasive sense of impending doom hanging over the village: a flood is coming, the end of days is here. Perhaps that explains some of the wild behavior going on in these houses: the group of men get increasingly rowdy, drinking excessively, donning chicken heads, and attempting a William Tell reenactment. The dining woman is increasingly ravenous, moving from wine to spaghetti to fish to the furniture. Gradually, a small narrative slips in: the woman playing the piano is having a covert relationship with the man in the helmet that will (in one case, literally) upend the town.
The piece employs humor to build tension and tension to extract humor in a distinctive theatrical voice. The laughs are tied inextricably to the things that make the blood pressure rise. There is nothing naturalistic about most of the performances: they are absurd from the beginning and only get wilder and wilder until reaching a cathartic explosion of dance at the climax. But the exaggerated behavior of these people exists in a world that, yes, smells like dirt, and looks and feels like a real place dropped into the Harvey. The scenic design by FC Bergman and Matthijs Kuyer and the costume design by Judith van Herck go miles in grounding the story in its own reality–anything can happen in this world and you’ll believe it. It doesn’t feel the need to over-explain everything. There are huge symbolic gestures that can mean any number of things and maybe mean all of them at the same time. The staging, the performances, and the camera work, coalesce to show exactly what we need, no more or less than is necessary. The world is highly detailed, but the narrative is spare enough to let it be whatever it means to anyone who approaches it. That kind of infinite opportunity only enriches the work, making it feel layered, smart, and intentional.
If 300 el x 50 el x 30 el resembles the great 32 rue Vandenbranden from the 2019 Next Wave (also Belgian, also concerned the residents of a small village–in that case a trailer park, also centered an ecological event), the approach FC Bergman takes ultimately renders it a completely different animal from Peeping Tom’s piece. It did make me pause for a moment to think about the programming of the Next Wave and what artistic director David Binder is responding to when selecting works for the festival. He clearly loves a village transplanted to the Harvey. Hey, guess what: I do, too. The man has great taste.