Friday, September 21, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Toys" (on Hotel Modern's production of Kamp)

by Douglas Messerli

Hotel Modern (theater group) Kamp / Los Angeles, REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater),  the performance I saw with Deborah Meadows was opening night, September 20, 2018

The Rotterdam theater troupe Hotel Modern, who over the past few years have been touring the US, have produced yet another important document about the Holocaust, and, even more importantly, tell its story in a way that appears to a younger audience who may not completely be acquainted with the horrors and the German, Polish, and other European Nazi death camps. If the audience at Redcat last night is any indication, they are reaching an audience of teens and 20-year-olds who most need to hear this story.
     The three performers, two women and one male dressed in gray robes, tell the horrific story in this case not through a barrage of reportage, but silently. Having created what feels like a completely accurate miniature reaction of Auschwitz, they move trains into the set, unload hundreds of passengers, move them into detention and into the gas showers, show them at work, trying to survive on the gruel they were fed, beaten to death, and even electrocuted on the fences as one tries to escape, all my by hand-manipulating tiny figures within this landscape while filming them through a tiny camera that imposes their images in large form upon a wall that covers the entire back of the proscenium theater.
      Somewhat like a silent film, we see these ghoulish figures, whose bodies are so wasted that they appear—as they truly are—as stick figures, while their faces are contorted into open holes of mouth and eyes a bit like Edvard’s Munch’s The Scream and even more reminiscent of the Expressionist German paintings before and after the great wars.
       Despite the lack of dialogue, however, sound is extremely important here: a saw against wood, a Nazi billy club hitting the head and other body parts of a victim, the thin soup being poured into the prisoner’s bowls, the shovel against the poison that is tossed into the showers, the drunken songs of the German guards, the train chugging its way into camp. Only the prisoners cannot be heard, much as in real life for those of us outside the camps (it’s fascinating that the 2015 film, László Nemes’ Son of Saul gives us a vision of that same hell with endless voices of the damned).
     But these figures, brought in and out in large interconnected blocks are clearly interchangeable puppets, like the toy soldiers of a children, are hefted in and out much as the Nazi’s themselves treated them, as indefinable groups rather than individualized beings. More than anything else the “puppeteers” themselves reveal how life in the camp was lived; people were subject the idea of the entire Jewish (gypsy, gay, etc) communities, unworthy of being perceived as separate from their groups. Hitler had already established categories of people which this presentation reiterates. The mechanized behavior of the prisoners is played out in this drama simply through the larger human beings, who control and set up their miniature figures, with little concern of the figurines and separate representations of being.
      And in that sense, the regulation of the set becomes its own statement about the nature of the actual human beings’ lives. Lights are turned on, one by one, throughout the miniature camp, fences are set up at seemingly illogical places, masses are gathered into different spots in the prison without logical explanation—but all with a superhuman regularity, as if these “players” are gods. I have never before seen a better signification of what it actually means when boys and girls take out toy soldiers and trot them through their imaginary and often meaningless gatherings.
     The wars these children play out are as arbitrary as all human wars and the sufferings those involved must endure. The representations of actuality are made to be utterly meaningless in the act of play itself.
      I suppose for those of my generation, most members of whom well know of the true horrors of the destruction of millions of Jewish citizens and others, that this retelling of the tale might seem almost unnecessary or, at the very least, repetitive. We have been there in our imaginations and in our readings so very many times. But by demonstrating the complete control the Nazis—who thought of themselves as superhuman gods—had over their prisoners, or playthings, the Hotel Modern revealed the horrors to a new audience, helping them to realize that the people gassed, shot, and beaten in the camps were, as this theater troupe makes clear, just that, toys to be played with, not beings of blood and flesh.
       This group has found the perfect way to entertain younger generations while simultaneously revealing the terror of the children and child-like adults of every decade of life.
       After the performance, the group invited the audience to come up to their miniature Auschwitz to see it up-close and even take pictures. My guest, Deborah Meadows, and I instinctively ran off in the other direction, not so much because we were hurrying back to our homes from the hour-long performance, but because, I believe, we could not imagine ourselves as tourists to such a dark past.

Los Angeles, September 21, 2018

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