The title of this long piece is a German word that connotes a state of shock and bewilderment in the wake of a traumatic disaster. The piece itself is based on actor Jonathan Young’s personal trauma and loss owing to the deaths of his teenage daughter and her two young friends in a cabin fire in 2009. Pite and Young, the co-creators of Betroffenheit, have striven to keep their multi-media piece from being merely voyeuristic, and they both seem to appreciate the fact that victimhood in itself is insufficient to the creation of art. Their construct offers an array of marvellous sequences, some of which are flamboyantly surrealistic, some of which are intensely abstract yet potent. Yet, although accidental death does not take over the show, the protagonist (Young playing himself as a victim of his own harrowing memories) becomes an individual absorbed by his ensemble, the ensemble by the will of the co-creators. In other words, there is an unmistakable sense of art as something compelled into being in order to manipulate an audience.
Betroffenheit thrives on its own pathology, and the extent to which the production goes in order to control this pathology is extraordinary. Jay Gower Taylor’s set design (given lighting by Tom Visser to suggest something liminal) starts off with a stark, ugly industrial setting, replete with large walls, doors that are open to intimidating or aggressive figures, and long coils that slide along the ground or up a wall like serpents. Industrialism has besieged theatrical design for at least the past two decades where Chekhov’s Russia, in particular, seems to have been transplanted to Thatcher’s Manchester or Birmingham to gloomy and seedy effect. However, as the Pite-Young creation is not about a socio-political subject, but about emotional or psychological distress, this cold industrial ambience is pertinent only as an emblem, perhaps, of death-in-life or vulnerable passivity. I understand that trauma and the subconscious are not fundamentally within the domain of the rational, but even as allegory or metaphor, the imagery is less than edifying. The piece thickens its own texture by having the protagonist addressing a complex surveillance system that tries to steer him away from his addiction to torturous guilt. But the libretto (spoken either as voice-over or live) is banal at best, full of flat interrogative sentences or declarative ones: “What happened? Oh, my God, what do we tell him? We don’t say anything.” He is haunted by a retinue of figures that run the gamut from plumed salsa-dancers to tap-dancers in top hats, from rubber-legged black emcee who is sometimes his “double” to acutely expressionistic mimes. All the movements are well choreographed and executed by the quintet of Bryan Arias, David Raymond, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey, and Tiffany Tregarthen, and Young (whom I had previously seen performing Shakespeare for Bard on the Beach in Vancouver) impresses with his flexibility as he is expertly guided and supported by Spivey (the rubber-legged virtuoso). There are modulations of tone especially formulated by the use of rhythm and blues or melancholy ballads, and there is a sequence of up-tempo show dancing, but the lingering question about the latter is whether it is meant to mock the protagonist or merely divert him.
In the second part, the industrial setting yields to extremely high walls, divided by a narrow vertical space, and the choreography shifts onto a more abstract level, offering a spectacle of victimhood (“You’re the disaster waiting to happen”). The soundscape (by Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani, and Meg Roe) produces an electronic agitation parallel to the performers’ silent screams. But the tableaux vivants do not obscure some of the limitations. The choreography itself indulges in cliches of gesture and movement, except for the remarkable Spivey who performs a solo using ballet and Hip Hop. The banal text does not help matters: “So where do we begin? What’s the action plan? Coming to terms with the past.” When are choreographers (and even actors) going to curb their enthusiasm for pretending to be playwrights? Textually, there is almost no poetry evident in the show. But there is poetry in the movement, and the piece is a vivid reminder that art can share desolation, mourning, melancholy as dialogue with a community in solidarity. Betroffenheit offers survival of trauma an artistic chance.