Martha Enson originally wanted to perform Rubble Women on a giant pile of rocks. Too bad she didn't get her wish. Seattle's face is pockmarked with construction sites, and seeing Enson's impressionistic new play about the Trümmerfrauen (the Berlin women who cleaned their bombed-out city after World War II) in one of them would've added a level of texture and depth that Rubble Women sometimes wants.
"I had a hard time letting go of the outdoor version," Enson says. "But we had to do it this time of year—and if we'd done it outside, we'd never get an audience and we'd all be sick."
Enson's second choice, the storage warehouse for a furniture maker, is an appropriate alternative. Down an alley of patched concrete, just a block from the rubbly crater where Consolidated Works used to be, the warehouse resembles a bunker, concrete and cold. (At future performances, Enson hopes to serve hot potatoes to the audience. They didn't make it on opening weekend.) The stark set and lighting—which relies on the type of massive, 10 million–candlepower flashlights that old Vietnamese men use for squid-fishing off piers in Elliott Bay—gives Rubble Women the feeling of life immediately after wartime.
The Allies, Enson says, gave more food rations to physical laborers than desk workers, so many women became Trümmerfrauen to feed themselves and whatever remnants of their families had survived the war. Others were simply conscripted. The bombing of Berlin destroyed approximately one-third of the city's apartments and left 75 million cubic meters of rubble. The women cleared it away with shovels and wheelbarrows: housecleaning writ very, very large.
Her script, developed with and directed by Sheila Daniels, is a pastiche of history, fairy tales, and vaudevillian clowning. (The cast has a shared cirque background: Enson performed and directed at Teatro Zinzanni between 2001 and 2005 and studied at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris with fellow cast member Carina Jingrot; Kajsa Ingemansson majored in "ensemble-based physical theater" at Dell'Arte International in California.) The rubble women play hot potato with their stones or cradle them like babies. They do impersonations (of chickens and men) and perform playful stripteases for each other, pulling their black fingerless gloves off with their teeth and slinking out of their dun lavender smocks.
In addition to Trümmerfrauen, the actresses also play fairy-tale characters: the Little Match Girl (Tracy Hyland), Scheherazade (Enson), Hecuba (Mik Kuhlman), and Psyche (Jingrot), all grubbing around the postwar detritus. They tell their stories of love and betrayal and deals with the devil, stacking mythological time on historical time on narrative time. A list of shared experiences, enumerated by the actors, is deployed as a kind of universal thread to sew all the different layers together, a bid for universality: "The first dance with your husband... The first time you can make it all the way across the monkey bars... The first time you don't care if he comes inside you... The first time your child saves you..."
Ironically, Rubble Women's universalism may be its undoing. Instead of digging into the specifics of one image or story, it glances off the surface of many. For a play about war and wreckage, Rubble Women feels like a pretty, shallow thing.
Critics across America and Europe have been hyperventilating over the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. The New York Times called its latest show, No Dice, "wondrous" and "a tour de force." Lane Czaplinski, director of On the Boards, says he was discussing Nature Theater with some theater programmers from Northern Europe. They told him: "A work like No Dice only comes along once every 10 years."
The New York–based company takes its name from the last chapter in Franz Kafka's Amerika. The hero, a 17-year-old immigrant looking for a job and a life, finds a welcoming flyer: "Personnel is being hired for the Nature Theater of Oklahoma! The Great Nature Theater of Oklahoma is calling you! It's calling today only!... All welcome! Anyone who wants to be an artist, step forward! We are the theater that has a place for everyone, everyone in his place!"
Pavol Liska, one of Nature Theater's codirectors, moved from Slovakia to Oklahoma when he was 18. "He lived there for a year," says Kelly Copper, the other codirector. "He labored under the delusion that he would find this theater. When he did not—we had to make it up ourselves."
The Nature Theater of Oklahoma ("anyone who wants to be an artist, step forward!") is a fitting namesake for a company dedicated to exploring the transcendent mundane. One of its previous shows—Poetics: a ballet brut—was a dance by nondancers. Its next show—Rambo Solo—will be a one-man reenactment of the first Rambo movie, made in a studio apartment with a budget of $100. And No Dice, which On the Boards is bringing to an empty office this weekend, is a four-hour epic of scavenged materials.
The company culled the text from over 100 hours of telephone conversations recorded while people sat at their boring desk jobs. "We would joke," Copper wrote, "that this was corporate-sponsored art." The movement came from three sources: an instructional video on how to perform street magic, people dancing at clubs, and the gestures of Liska's mother as she spoke in Slovak to the uncomprehending company. Nature Theater then organized the gestures using a deck of cards (they can start anywhere in the series, but must go in order) and a game the actors play with each other during the performance.
Does relying on found materials and games, instead of writing and blocking, feel like an abdication of their jobs as artists? No, Copper answers—the precision and games keep the performance fresh and the actors from slipping into autopilot. Whether the audience understands the system, she says, is irrelevant: "It just keeps everyone in the same room in the present moment," she wrote, "working hard to be understood."