Swan Song

For many Americans, culture begins and ends in America. Though the occasional British play or Italian film might make a wave or two upon our shores, the biggest successes are usually local successes. Even in theater, where cultural exchange is encouraged (as in all arts), unless a show is coming from London's West End, its presence isn't often acknowledged by the public. LaMaMa E.T.C., whose bread and butter is overseas experimental theater, is now presenting Earth in Trance, a show written and directed by avant-garde hell-raiser Gerald Thomas. According to his two-and-a-half-page bio in the show's program, he and his Dry Opera Company are well known in both his native Brazil and Western Europe. He also directed several Beckett plays at LaMaMa in the early 80's.

With the double strike of being foreign and experimental, his is not a name that will jog memories in New York mainstream audiences. It's not likely that Thomas will win any new supporters with this blandly Americanized piece of meaningless atmospherics and political rants.

The scene is an overly fogged dressing room with 70's decor and an even older radio/intercom. (Asthmatics have a few minutes to reach for their rescue inhalers before the show begins.) An opera singer in a loosely tied robe is plagued by an outburst of news and static noises emanating from the old speaker. Then a swan slides its head through a hole in the wall and appears at the side of her vanity mirror.

She overfeeds the swan while delivering banal tirades on the current presidential administration and "salacious" stories about her sex-capades. As she avoids preparing for her entrance (she's essaying Isolde in Tristan & Isolde), she realizes that she is trapped in the room ... and we are trapped with her ... and she is still talking about George Bush and company. Clearly, hell is CNN filtered through the accented ravings of a mad diva.

There is a not-so-surprising "reveal" at the end that attempts to cast this nonsense in a more understandable light. But for a type of theater that's meant to push boundaries, there are many conventional aspects to the show and its staging. Dissonant, electronic-type sounds and bizarre dancing are well-referenced listings in the theatrical dictionary under "things that people hear/do during nervous breakdowns." The swan, which could have been such a beautifully abstract element, is too easily written off as a figment of the woman's imagination—and, indeed, she does psychoanalyze its relevance onstage!

The singer herself, played by longtime Thomas collaborator Fabiana Gugli, is convincing as a diva type and as a woman losing her mind, but not as an opera singer. Perhaps it would be better if she didn't do any singing in the show, as a shallow, unsure voice was revealed. Gugli's character is not given enough personal things to say to evoke any strong empathy; her plan for turning the swan's fattened liver into foie gras makes her a villain until it becomes more obvious that the swan—and its liver—is an illusion.

Listening to this vanilla dialogue makes one wonder what the original Portuguese version had to offer. Was it about Brazilian politics or social issues? Were local aging celebrities name-checked? Part of the enjoyment of experiencing art made by another culture is its insights into that other culture. There are many local shows that cover U.S. current events, but I can't think of one that discusses present-day South America.

And if the point of the repetitively political dialogue in Earth in Trance was that those who don't acknowledge the ills of the world are doomed to be consumed by them, well, Dickens has already written a very traditional and beloved story about that one. It's probably on television right now.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post