Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is that grand, huge, defining novel of Western Literature that defies easy summaries or tidy conclusions. The Berlin-based collective Gob Squad can be forgiven, consequently, for not attempting anything resembling those reductions in the War and Peace they brought to NYU Skirball last weekend, or for even trying to tell part of the story as did Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 (Ars Nova, Broadway). If this swirling epic set against Napoleon’s invasion of Russia could be reduced to tabloid form, the Gobs have managed it: gossip, conflict, pop spirituality, celebrities and their travails, in a breezy or sensationalistic tone, as required, are all here, served up for an avid public, whom they have also invited into their experiment.
Gob Squad calls their performances “assemblages” and “live events,” which is another way of saying that their own work is as resistant to categorization as Tolstoy’s. Both terms apply to War and Peace, which is two performances in one. The first of these is a “salon” in the spirit (if not the style) of the evenings hosted by Anna Pavlovna, and uniting Gob Squad members Sean Patten, Sarah Thom, Bastian Trost and Simon Will with three audience members, selected by the Gobs during a pre-show mingle in the theater’s lobby. This conceit, although it was crammed into a corner of the stage as if it needed to get out of the way of a cavalry charge, allowed us to meet a psych nurse at Bellevue, a NYC Department of Education employee and a Korean-American visitor from California.
These willing volunteers had zero familiarity with the novel, but this was of no concern to the Gobs, who were more interested in their participants’ lives and personalities, asking them about their perceived class standing, their affinities with historical rulers, or their political inclinations. These interactions were recorded and the video projected onto two screens which were, with a Napoleonic era military tent, sword and a copy of the novel, the only other items on stage. The effect was distant, cold, mediatized: the human interactions repackaged as a reality show whose takeaway was an apathetic “I’m ok, you’re ok” non-involvement with society at large (no affiliations, no judgements, no opinions on much of anything). If Napoleon rode into New York tomorrow, he would find so little resistance he might wonder why he bothered or cared to come in the first place.
From there on out (another hour on the clock), Gob Squad presented the novel’s characters, fashion-show style, each accompanied by a blandly succinct summary of their persons so that, for example, Nikolai Rostov was “a popular guy” and Tsar Alexander I simply “Icon”. These monikers were strutted down an imaginary runway like literal fashion statements, in a textile shorthand stuck to the actors’ bodies like paper doll cutouts (for most of the performance, the Gobs sported identical, champagne colored Empire gowns that fell away from their waists to reveal underwear, pantyhosed legs and a range of styles of clunky boots, the better for marching through history, apparently).
The action included, as it does with Gob Squad, discussions among the cast that are born from their collaborative efforts to de/re-construct their chosen topic. In this case, the crux of the matter was the problem of war and why it troubles human civilization. To reveal that they couldn’t arrive at a satisfying answer can’t possibly merit a “spoiler alert” (that said, Sarah Thom’s analysis – “white men” – was the most on target). Melodrama briefly wafted into the mix, in a battlefield face-off between Bonaparte and Alexander and a tribute to women in war, from the prostitutes that service soldiers to the field nurses that soothe them until death arrives. War is hell, but it was time to move on to the next topic.
The show drags out to an impossible conclusion. Modern celebs make an appearance. The cast waltzes through Tolstoy’s “Dance of History.” There are cute kitten videos to soothe the inevitable wandering of our attention, and then oak trees in the mist, represented by the cast in tree costumes that made me think of a high school art department’s version of the Forest of Birnam. The show finishes with a recording of audiences at previous performances shouting out a single word from the text’s conclusion. We joined in with “space.”
What are we meant to take away? That we haven’t learned our history lessons? That Tolstoy is just too long and detailed for anyone to read anymore (a poll of the audience revealed only a smattering of people had ever taken it up, much less finished it)? That ambivalence is more dangerous to democracy than a well-armed regiment (mine)? Or that we are just out of ideas, and the world, like the Skirball’s mostly empty stage, is an aggregation of empty symbols?
Gob Squad is clearly inspired by Tolstoy’s belief that ordinary people (those three volunteers drinking wine and noshing strawberries on stage, the rest of us shouting in the audience) are as much a part of History as world leaders, captains of industry, generals and the like. And they want to investigate how modern media and its tropes influence how we “commoners” participate or not in the so-called “march of events.” Their investigations are informed by a deep humanity, a generous sense of humor and a cool critique of our tech-mediated lives. But if the Gob Squad should not be tasked with providing an analysis of Tolstoy’s complexities that can fit into a night of theater, they might be taken to task for an unexpectedly tedious deflation of the text and their own usually compelling performance art.