Double Reality :: Bringing Humanity to Life in ’Lebensraum’

by Michael Cox

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday April 8, 2014

"If someone is the father of slapstick comedy, I would say it's Buster Keaton - even before Charlie Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin is great and also Harold Lloyd, but without [Keaton] it would never be the way it was. They all depended on his mind."

Director-choreographer Jakop Ahlbom, who conceived the surreal and "silent" comedy "Lebensraum," speaks to me from Amsterdam for this interview, but he's looking forward to coming to the Boston premiere of his darkly human homage to the silent film auteur Buster Keaton.

This prize-winning director, famous for his illusory worlds, trained in mime at the Theatre School in Amsterdam, after leaving his native Sweden. In the Netherlands, he has envisioned visually remarkable productions of scripts ranging from "The Tales of Hoffmann" to Tracy Letts play "Bug." Recently, he received his second four-year subsidy for theatre arts companies from the Performing Arts Fund NL+.

In the dialogue-free play "Lebensraum," two male inventors (Reinier Schimmel and Yannick Greweldinger) run into problems when they create a mechanical doll (Silke Hundertmark) to help them keep house.

Like most of us, Ahlbom grew up with the familiar image of 'the little tramp,' the famous Charlie Chaplin. It wasn't until recently that he began to familiarize himself with Keaton. "Charlie Chaplin expresses emotion and Buster Keaton doesn't do that. So he leaves everything to us, and that makes a big difference. He doesn't fill it in for us; we have to fill it in for him."

As I talk to him, Ahlbom wonders if perhaps another title would have been better, something more American, since Buster Keaton is an American actor. But "Lebensraum," which translates to ’habitat’ or ’living space,’ describes a significant theme, one that’s quite important to the play. When the curtain rises, this ’living space’ appears to be the interior from the first scene of Keaton’s short film "The Scarecrow."

This film, like many of Keaton’s shorts, was set up as a love triangle with the small, quick and malleable Keaton pitted against a rotund and slow-moving rival. As usual, the competition is for the hand of a pretty general and unremarkable woman. Rather than try to cast an actor who could duplicate Buster Keaton on stage, Ahlbom focused on the relationship between two men who both resemble the silent film icon.

There is still the familiar matric between the two of them. One is smaller and spryer, and the other is larger and slower. But apart from that, in their hair style and clothing, they both look the same.

"What is their relationship?" Instead of giving us answers Ahlbom only asks questions. "Are they two brothers? Are they two friends? They both look like each other. Are they both Buster Keaton? Are they a mirror image of each other, or are they a creation?" We know these two are inventors, and they are capable of creating a mechanical or robotic person, so Ahlbom poses the idea, "Maybe one created the other one. Of course I choose what I think... and I’m not going to tell it to you what that is.

"These two [men] are fulfilling each other in a [certain] way, but that fulfillment is not enough," the director explains. This pair has ordered their lives with precise detail, but something is missing. "And that’s why [a] woman has to come in and make the middle part."

It’s no accident that the sex of their mechanical housekeeper is female, but Ahlbom was determined to have a woman that wasn’t a love interest. Instead she’s a robot, similar to the other devices in this home that the inventors have created.

"I always say, with people, it’s not what you show on the outside. But if you could turn them inside-out, so that you could only see what’s on the inside... You can’t define, really, what that is. You can only suggest and play with it... using your imagination.

When looking for the profound, audiences assume that tragedy is superior to comedy and verbal wit is superior to slapstick, but Ahlbom challenges these assumptions. "If you think of slapstick, you think of these very cliché, melodramatic gags. And I must admit I put some of that in there, for reference, but I tried to [make the gags] as good as I possibly could.

"[During the silent film era], the comedy could only be physical, and I wouldn’t put this as a lesser thing than verbal comedy. Both can be banal and cheap and both can be smart. I’m a physical comedy person, and I think we lost something when we started moving away from physical comedy. That’s what I want to bring it back to life.

"The difficulty is not just in making funny things, but also to make those funny things serious. And that’s why I connected to Buster Keaton.

"This stone face, this melancholy, poetic person, he tries things out and the comedy happens around him. He is never responsible for the comedy. He’s a victim of his situation, which is mostly tragic."

A deadpan style of acting that leaves the face a blank canvas was nearly revolutionary when Buster Keaton first showed it to the world, and he was famous for it. In "Lebensraum," that same acting quality has paid off for actress, Silke Hundertmark. She was first and only actor in a non-speaking role to be nominated for the Colombina, a prestigious Dutch acting award. Still, established traditions are not easy to break.

"She never would have won," says Ahlbom, "and I think that’s unfortunate, because she didn’t talk and an actress has to talk to win that prize."

To round out "Lebensraum," Ahlbom collaborated with "good friends" Leonard Lucieer and Empee Holwerda of the band Alamo Race Track.

"When I watch [silent films], I can sit through three in a row and then I have to close my ears because the piano music becomes so annoying," says Ahlbom. "[Alamo Race Track] has an American sound that goes well with Buster Keaton and I like the guitar, so why not do it with music that is more fitting to today but still supports that silent era feeling. And I enjoy the country music atmosphere."

Playing live-music on stage, the band seems to grow out of the set and become characters in the play. "I like the way that turned out. In that, I think we really succeeded. [And] I think they add an emotional touch to enhance the comedy, by [letting us know] there is something to it.

"They add to the melancholy, poetic feeling, which makes [the play] not only laugh-out-loud but also touching. It adds something more that we wouldn’t have reached without them."

Gymnastic physical stunts and fantastic theatrical illusions sound like the components of a less profound play. "Lebensraum" proves that a visual and comedic theatre can also explore inner worlds. "To make things extreme [or surreal]," says Ahlbom, "you enhance certain humanistic qualities or put them in a different light. And a dreamlike logic makes the audience search for the answers. You become a detective.

"[The audience] sees [elements] and they have to put it all together. I’m not telling them how it is. They have to figure it out for themselves. ’This is what’s happening. What effect does it have on you?’

"I like surreal things. I like when reality is challenged. We have the Internet, and through it people can live on another level. They can be themselves in daily life, and then they can go on the net and be someone completely different. And, now, you can expose yourself on the Internet and all your strange habits - playing a dog during the day or living with dolls. [In all our lives,] there is always this double reality and I find it fascinating.

"And there is also this question of what is morally right, what is good and bad.

"I have a fascination with human life and how people interact with each other.

"It may be complicated."

April 9 - 13 at the Emerson/Paramount Center Mainstage
Running Time 90 minutes with no intermission.
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