Entertainment » Theatre

Lebensraum [Habitat]

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Apr 10, 2014
Lebensraum [Habitat]

First off, "Lebensraum [Habitat]," continuing through April 13 at the Paramount as part of the ArtsEmerson World on Stage series, is not the Israel Horovitz play that imagines a future in which Germany invites six millions Jews from around the world to re-locate and restore the country's social fabric as a way of making amends for the Holocaust.

Rather, this is the vision of Dutch director Jakop Ahlbom. Note the subtitle: "Lebensaraum" here denotes not the "living space" Hitler declared Germany needed when it was trying to conquer the globe, but rather the "habitat" of the play's subtitle.

Actually, "play" might not be quite the right ford for "Lebensraum [Habitat]." This is a silent movie on stage, which pays homage to the great physical comedians of the soundless cinema era -- Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and especially Buster Keaton, whose (non) expressions the actors emulate, especially Yannick Grewelder, who plays the smaller, slighter half of a pair of roommates sharing a tiny flat.

The other occupant is a larger fellow, played by Reiner Schimmel. He has a habit of thoughtlessly shouldering aside his little pal; more the most part, however, the two have settled into a comfortable routine: Sharing a bed that upends into a mirrored wardrobe; setting out and sharing breakfast (the big guy heedlessly eats the lion's share of the provisions); and experimenting on a life-sized doll (Silke Hundertmark) that takes on a life of its own, and awkwardly steps into the role of female companion and maid. (This last is, of course, another silent shout-out to early film and to "Metropolis," by Fritz Lang).

The story follow simple contours that are endlessly knotted, tangled, and folded over one another with ongoing, intricate sight gags and extravagantly complicated, Goldbergian gizmos (such as a pulley system that works quite handily for serving up meals, if you are deft enough to work it).

The set design is superficially boring: Monotonous patterns in a blah color scheme. What that hides, of course, is an inventively designed set by Douwe Hibma and Ahlbom, which allows the actors to leap in and out of the room, not always entering the way they left. (Walk out a door, re-enter through a cupboard; get tossed out a window, reappear by magic in the bed. Or, in a spectacular optical illusion, dive into a briefcase being held open by another character.)

The actors, too, are done up in a simple color palette: Black and white, with white makeup and plain black clothing. The exception (or part of the time, anyway) is the band Alamo Race Track, a Dutch two-man band that writes and sings in English. They provide the accompaniment to the play, and though their musical style seems a little odd for a '20s-style silent movie (they sound like contemporary bluegrass), and their lyrics have no direct bearing on the events onstage, they create fitting moods for the various passages of the piece.

The highly choreographed, dynamic movement is very much of a piece with the genre the play re-creates. Hundertmark's doll moves just as she should, like someone jointed the way a doll would move; the male actors have studied dance and mime, and that training comes through, especially in sequences in which they scrap and tussle with inanimate objects (not just the doll; the table, the chairs, everything here seems to spring to life in this intricately executed piece).

This is a short production -- only about 75 minutes -- but it packs in a spectrum of emotions, from high-spirited hilarity to comically-exaggerated exasperation, to loneliness. The spirit of Buster Keaton is summoned here, but precisely plotted pandemonium shows up.

"Lebensraum [Habitat]" continues through April 13 at Emerson/Paramount Center MainStage, 559 Washington Street in Boston's Theatre District. For tickets and more information, please visit www.artsemerson.org or call 617?824?8400

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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