Last fall, I reviewed User Not Found, a transmedia theatre piece that put the audience in noise-cancelling headphones and fed us an audio stream from a single actor in a packed cafe. It also fed us silence – a true, untainted quiet almost impossible to achieve.
In this year’s Exponential Festival, director and adaptor Dmitri Barcomi brings us Others, a live riff on a 1919 silent film, but, musical accompaniment aside, the actual silence is missing. There’s all the ambient noise associated with live bodies: breath and footsteps and clothes rustling, black cubes being rearranged, violin cases opening and closing. Silent films have an eerie quality when we view them now, when movies are louder than ever. Almost every silent film, no matter the subject, plays today like a horror film. As audiences beg for realism, for lifelike picture and sound, these relics from a hundred years ago are so far removed from that that they play like an alien thing, even when they’re technically romantic comedies.
It’s the silence that does it. There’s nothing on the soundtrack but whatever music is chosen to play over it. There’s a hollowness. Even if you have seen and enjoyed many silent films, that initial disconnect is jarring. But I also think it’s delicious in its weirdness, in how this ultra-quiet subverts the inescapable noise we are submerged in, not just in New York City, but anywhere. It’s something great about the medium, and something that can’t be replicated with live actors in a 25-seat blackbox theatre in someone’s Brooklyn apartment.
Others is based on a Weimar-era silent called, in translation, Other [or Different] from the Others, about male violinists who begin a love affair that ends in tragedy after they are blackmailed by a jealous third party. The Exponential blurb and Barcomi’s curtain speech both refered to it as “the first gay rights movie” in that it was a direct challenge to Germany’s Paragraph 175, which criminalized homosexuality.
Barcomi’s production uses live violin accompaniment (by Aimée Niemann and Barcomi) mirroring the violinists at the center of the film, the virtuoso Paul Körner (Anna Dresdale) and his pupil/lover Kurt Sivers (Josiah Vasquez), as well as a hodgepodge of recorded music that alternates with and is layered over the live violin to create a soundscape that amplifies the increasing danger to the relationship. The music never fully washes over the unavoidable sounds I mentioned before, though. There is no dialogue, so the only thing we are supposed to hear is the violins and the recorded music. Barcomi attempts to restage the events of the film in person, but the effect ends up being a group of actors miming in front of a projection screen, stomping their feet, and huffing and puffing.
If this were a movement piece, it would excuse some of this, but, from what I can tell, it’s meant to be a dramatic enactment of the film. When Dresdale and Vasquez dance (together and separately) to the violin music, Seth Majnoon’s choreography is less literal than Barcomi’s blocking. The choreography translates the silent film medium to live performance in a way that elevates and poeticizes the emotion from the screen. The inherent melodrama of films of this period can’t be restaged in person without feeling a little comical and it’s hard to get past this in connecting with the characters or the situations. Barcomi does give the full cast a slow-motion pillow fight scene that is entertaining and shows a winking acknowledgment of the play’s campiness that I wish existed elsewhere.
Barcomi sets up a nearly unachievable task and reaches for it with passion, but the actual goals of this production were never quite clear to me. If it is meant to be an exact replica of what happens in the film, the lack of utter silence immediately negates that. If it is meant to be a theatrical rendering of a silent film, the staging is too literal and the silent-era mugging is ill-suited. I left thinking that I’d witnessed something unique, but unsuccessful, so not a complete loss in my book.