How does one describe the foreboding feeling of the calm before the storm? What might you witness if you peeked into the homes of a small community before a raging tempest transpired? In the US and Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) premiere of 300 el x 50 el x 30 el by the daring, provocative Belgian theatre company FC Bergman, you don’t have to guess. Instead, you are granted fly-on-the-wall access to the private moments of ordinary people with quirky and bizarre habits, blissfully unaware of the storm brewing.
The Harvey Theater at BAM Strong is transformed into a quaint European village with wooden shacks in a semi-circle. Trees sway in the distance, the stage floor is covered in soil, and a man sits downstage in relative stillness, holding a fishing rod with its line buried in a black pond of uncertain depth speckled with leaves. A video screen shows an old man in bed hooked up to various medical monitoring machines with a pigeon swinging in a cage above him. One gets the uneasy sense that something is coming, something dangerous, despite the mundane appearances. The action begins when the elderly man pulls off the medical devices and abandons his hut. “You’re on your own,” his body language says in silence as he exits the stage and the town.
Suddenly, the camera shifts and the audience gets a glimpse of what these folks do behind closed doors. A family of four is having dinner together, but only one is greedily guzzling while the others look on. The camera pans to the next home, where a bored young woman clunks piano keys while a strict matron keeps time by tapping. The lens rolls along and stops on a couple where the man pulls his flaccid penis languidly as the woman groans in agony over a toilet. Next comes a group of men watching another play darts (and miss every time) in a small space that makes New York closets seem spacious. Finally, we see a man in a combat helmet taking enormous pleasure from setting off tiny explosions on a diorama.
The juxtaposition of the live-action captured by the camera versus the naked eye gives the viewer a chance to appreciate the performers’ powerful subtleties. With no dialogue, a tiny glace can speak volumes. For example, in the second home, a woman sits down for supper, nibbling at her meal. Three others surround her and are standing, an older man with a frizzled beard, a young woman or older girl, and a sulking mop-topped boy. This establishes a family dynamic. The sitting woman makes one stern glare, and the daughter (Shana Van Looveren, a compelling actress with Downs Syndrome) obediently pours more wine. As the show progresses, the mother’s insatiable appetite grows more monstrous. She consumes everything in sight, including the table legs, oblivious to those around her. Gert Portal, the actress who plays the greedy gourmand, informed me that if those relationships and power dynamics are not established in the first moment, all is lost. That’s a lot of pressure for a performer, but each actor pulls it off with apparent ease and panache. The European tradition of physicality in theatrical storytelling certainly helps.
Every moment of every scene is utterly riveting! It’s odd yet ordinary and hilarious because each action is executed with deadly seriousness. Human nature under a microscope. The ugliest hidden parts and the strangest desires intermix and in plain view. With each full-circle rotation of the camera crew, we get a deeper glimpse into the worlds that are building and falling apart in these tiny shacks.
The mop-top boy (Mattis Devoldere Contesse) wanders into the old man’s hut to play with his pigeons, resulting in violence. (No pigeons were harmed, the trained pair came from Jersey Shore Doves, and the violence was enacted upon a prop). A ram is pulled from the depths of the black pool, a symbolic sacrificial lamb foreshadowing the villagers’ fate. The tension brews as lovers arrange a rendezvous that goes awry. Panic sets in, but also a strange sense of calm. The fisherman starts to sing “That Little Bit Of Hurt In Our Eyes,” written and composed by Gregory Frater, Hannes d’ Hoine and Tijs Delbeke, in a gorgeous resonant gospel tone that fills the theatre like a prayer. As the camera rolls on, the shacks’ inhabitants lip-sync to the words.
But another twist is added. When you think the drama has hit its heights, suddenly, the village grows. Sixty more performers spill out onto the dirt stage and face the audience (extras hired locally in each city the show tours). Then, as the song’s intensity builds until it reaches a crescendo, the sixty additional performers and the primary actors begin to jump. Then, they jump for a relentless five minutes while the vocalist wails as if performing a rain dance ritual to open the sky and let the flood wash over and consume them all. Finally, the audience is left feeling akin to the aftermath of a hard downpour. 300 el x 50 el x 30 el sinks beneath the soil of one’s soul and lingers there.
This production was created initially with only 5000 Euros. That fact alone showcases the foresight and vision of Stef Aerts, Joé Agemans, Bart Hollanders, Matteo Simoni, Thomas Verstraeten and Marie Vinck (FC Bergman) and the willingness and courage of the primary actors (Gert Portal, Herwig Ilegems, Shana Van Looveren, Evelien Bosmans, Ramona Verkerk, Arne Focketeyn, Oscar Van Rompay, Ruud Gielens, Gregory Frater, Mattis Devoldere Contesse, Karen Vanparys, Yorrith de Bakker, and Jeroen Perceval). It also proves that FC Bergman is a creative maelstrom and a force to be reckoned with in global theatre.
The title and some themes of 300 el x 50 el x 30 el make reference to the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, particularly of the fate of the villagers who did not heed the warning of pending danger and were washed away in the flood. It is interesting to note some of the choices in the references to the cautionary tale unique to FC Bergman’s origins. Like the caged pigeon, instead of a dove, for instance, that was left behind by the Noah figure. Belgians have a unique relationship with pigeons and have raced them for centuries.
A focus on the effects of natural disasters, weather and Mother Nature’s fury on humanity are as timeless and pertinent as themes of love, family, desire, violence, and betrayal, which also come into play. 300 el x 50 el x 30 el offers a dialogue-free opportunity to peer into human nature at its most tragically comedic moments.
Of course, the significance of floods and nature’s wrath is not buried in biblical times. It is more frightfully relevant than ever as hurricanes tear across Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, and Florida. What were the last moments the people there experienced before their lives and homes were drastically changed?
The fly-on-the-wall perspective from FC Bergman’s 300 el x 50 el x 30 el offers a glimpse of the best and (mostly) worst of human nature, ignorant of the ever-present foreboding doom that could strike at any moment.
FC Bergman’s 300 el x 50 el x 30 el is part of BAM’s Next Wave 2022. For more information, shows and tickets, visit www.bam.org