In order to discuss UMO Ensemble’s Maldoror, currently playing at the West of Lenin through this weekend, one needs to put aside a number of lazy habits instilled in the audience by a steady diet of Straight (read: Narrative) Theater. As with all of UMO’s productions, one particularly needs to forget the brand of kitchen sink realism that is often presented on our stages. Instead, what’s required is an openness of the senses, an awareness of what’s transpiring onstage, and let meaning appear cumulatively. Unfortunately, many of our critics consider this to be too much work, so they resist Maldoror‘s pull and hide behind sarcastic language, when in fact it is the simplest thing to do once it’s been decided to simply let go and be drawn in.
Which is not to downplay the emotional and textual complexities at play within UMO’s production, but that is to be expected for numerous reasons. To begin with, let’s look at the source of this adaptation, Le Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror: a seminal 19th Century prose poem that features a disturbing, disjointed, aggressively strange and non-linear narrative of the titular character, a hateful man who excoriates God, humanity and society for the same reasons creator/instigator Lyam White uses above to define his play’s Zoomorphs. It is a curious and malevolently powerful text that would have been lost to the obscurities of time had it not proved to be influential.
From the Encyclopedia Brittanica:
The work received little notice until the Surrealists, struck by its disquieting juxtaposition of strange and unrelated images, adopted Lautréamont as one of their exemplars. Above all it was the savagery of protest in Maldoror, as if revolt against the human condition had achieved definitive blasphemy, that created a ferment among the poets and painters of the early 20th century.
A small list of Surrealist artists influenced by the work would include Salvador Dali (who drew illustrations for a published edition of the work), Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Antonin Artaud–no friend of traditional arts, let alone traditional narrative, among them. A decision could have been made somewhere in the adaptation process to simply adhere to the narrative portion of Lautréamont’s poem, and present that journey in a linear fashion–a definitive adaptation of this work that uses this approach may yet be written, but it would, by default, completely fail to convey the mood and effect of the source material. Instead, White and his ensemble attempt to capture the essence of Les Chants by dropping the central figure of the prose, and presenting some of the ‘strange and unrelated images’ that the work is known for. Specifically, White sought to “[revive…] the ‘ritual’ aspect of theater, that threshing-floor call to the gods of earth or sky,” and so, by removing the potential audience surrogate, he ends up making the audience the very gods his characters seek to rebuke.
To further achieve this, White and his ensemble/collaborators have adapted the Buffoon, a clowning technique that UMO has used regularly in the past, and created the Zoomorphs in order to share these vignettes. They are a group characterized by a child’s awareness, curiosity and cruel nature; they are characterized by a malevolence that is easy to identify with. Each member is an amalgamation of humanoid and a specific animal characterization–an ostrich, a wolf, an insect, a bird, a shark, etc. The world they inhabit is a hostile one, but they find a comforting logic within it and are not alien to the beauty that could be found there.
As the play begins, there is a newborn Zoomorph has arrived, it isn’t clear from where, though the others quickly take him in and indoctrinate him to the realities of their realm, until he is ready to become a full-fledged member of the clan. This is where the ensemble has appropriated passages from Les Chants, and it is this journey that we, as the audience, witness. These passages depict the animalistic harshness of Nature, but not–this is important–in an indulgently bleak way. The evening is inundated with visually arresting sequences of haunting beauty, which is occasionally broken up by brief doses of mordant humor. What they weave is a heightened representation of our world’s elemental chaos, presented without judgment, just an exaggerated sense of sardonic weariness at the inevitability of it all.
Take an early scene, in which the Shark Zoomorph (Kajsa Ingemansson) leads the class in a language lesson; she has them translates lines like: “I want to bite through skin and muscle and let my hate spread like venom through your veins” and “with my limbs, I want to destroy you, beat you to pieces, to a pile of bones.” The punchline soon follows: “Through language, we become civilized.” It is difficult not to laugh at the excess.
There are two components missing from this description, that of Film and Sound. They are both important, but it is the latter that is fairly vital to the genetic make up of Maldoror. Situated upstage, embedded inside a metallic cage, is something of a caretaker figure, played by Andre Sanabria (a.k.a. Seattle industrial/noise act blowupnihilist), who manipulates the aural landscape, alternating between spare, eerie moods and loud bursts of noise. Occasionally, the Zoomorphs become aware of the caretakers role in shaping their universe and in retaliation seek to destroy him, only to be repelled by his manipulations.
One last note on the ensemble, whose physicality and commitment to the material help to make this project feel complete. They are an ensemble in the truest sense, moving and expressing their emotions as one living organism along with Ingemansson and White, they are Sharon Barto, Ryan Higgins, and Christine White. They all deserve accolades for their work; it is nice to see Higgins use his energetic charisma for something other than the male ingenue roles he’s become known for, which also applies to Ms. Barto and Ms. White; Ingemansson’s embodiment of the shark is a difficult one not to watch.
During his interview with the Star linked above, Mr. White described the effect of his Maldoror as ‘proto-surrealist’, and given that Lautréamont inspired Artaud who then went on to create the Theatre of Cruelty, the description is apt. The effect is dizzying, overwhelming; akin to diving into a particularly deep isolation chamber and emerging a mere hour later, sure that one has experienced something, but not quite able to define or describe what. This is by design.
UMO’s Maldoror isn’t quite fully formed yet; as this is the projects first public outing in full, the ensemble is still experimenting and adapting as they go along. If this is just the beginning, they are well on their way towards crafting a particularly potent experience for people who want more than the same old Narrative doldrum. As it stands, Seattle has three more chances to witness Maldoror for themselves, all are advised to do so as quickly as possible.
Friday and Saturday at 8:00p.m., Sunday at 3:00p.m. // West of Lenin, 203 North 36th Street // $20, available at Brown Paper Tickets, and at the door