Diverse joys unite distant theater fests

by Mana Katsura

Special To The Japan Times

In early summer this year, I went to the famous theater festivals in two European cities — first the Theater der Welt 2014, which ran May 23-June 8 in the war-blitzed and rebuilt southwest German city of Mannheim, then to the Sibiu International Theatre Festival 2014 held June 6-15 in the Romanian city of that name, which still bears traces of its medieval history.

Theater der Welt, presented under the auspices of the German Centre of the International Theatre Institute, began in 1981 and is held every three years, with a new programming director and location each time. This year, the director was Matthias Lilienthal, 54, who is known for his innovative projects. Meanwhile, the Sibiu event has been held annually since 1993, with director Constantin Chiriac, 56, at the helm.

At Theater der Welt, two plays from Japan had been chosen as invitational works — Chelfitsch’s “Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich,” written and directed by Toshiki Okada, which pursues the relationship between humans and economics through the medium of Japan’s ubiquitous conbini 24-hour stores, and the Niwa Gekidan Penino company’s deeply psycho-sexual “Box in the Big Trunk” written and directed by Kuro Tanino.

The festival’s main venue, the Nationaltheater Mannheim, had a tent village in its grounds offering a place to stay with kitchen, pool and sauna for a mere €5 per night. There were also art works on themes such as gender and immigration.

For example, Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek’s “The Wards,” directed by Nicolas Stemann, evoked the terrible experiences of asylum seekers, quoting “The Suppliants” by the Ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus, as it made full use of video and the actors’ bodies to highlight inequalities.

In Mannheim, though, unexpected things can happen anywhere. Dmitry Krymov from Russia directed “Tararabumbia” in a hall with high ceilings well-suited to this revue of Chekhov’s plays in which several dozen actors riding on a conveyor belt operated marching puppets and played military music. Most striking, though, was an actress who flapped her wings while screaming in a shrill voice — her humorous appearance amid austerity a symbol of the damaged soul of Nina from “The Seagull.”

Then, on a court in a tennis club, I gazed in wonder at “The Conversationalist” by Gob Squad, a German-English collective. Just one of the festival’s countless site-specific events, this was based on American writer David Foster Wallace’s novel “Infinite Jest,” with the tennis game they played using conversation instead of a ball.

In Romania, too, the entire town had also become part of the marvelous venue for the Sibiu International Theatre Festival. In addition to plays that made use of former citadels and factories, there were street performers, parades and circus acts from around the globe spreading their energy everywhere — and bringing smiles to the faces of adults and children alike.

Among an official program rich in variety were five works from Japan — including “Macbeth” directed by kyōgen master Mansai Nomura, and Minoru Betsuyaku’s “Godot has Come!” directed by Kiyoshi Kiyama.

Meanwhile, besides seeing a haunting version of “Faust” directed by Silviu Purcarete and performed by actors from Romania’s National Theatre Radu Stanca, I was also able to see two more of Purcarete’s whirlwind works of nightmarish beauty and humor — his satirical take on Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” in which noble horses contrast with greedy humans, and “Oedipus” by Sophocles, but here in modern guise with Chiriac himself in the title role.

Thanks to the rising popularity of the theater festival, Sibiu was selected as the European Capital of Culture 2007, and it continues to develop and change with every visit. The strength that art brings to the community is tangible.

This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.