Do you remember John Tenniel’s rabbit illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll?
That was the first thing I thought of when I saw the program for Love | Death | Devil – The Piece by the Ben J. Riepe Kompanie
Nothing like a rabbit wearing a ruff to bring back memories from my childhood. Which then led me to The Jefferson Airplane.
Which led me to the brown acid, which enabled me to make some sense, or gain some comprehension and understanding of Love | Death | Devil – The Piece by the Ben J. Riepe Kompanie. In short it’s a bad acid trip.
It played at La Chapelle last week and was a very big deal. It was the North American premiere, and quite possibly the first time that the Ben J. Riepe Kompanie itself had performed in this side of the Atlantic. Back in the 1980s I used to say that all the cool stuff either originated here or made it’s way here from New York or Paris. The Ben J. Riepe Kompanie preformed Love | Death | Devil – The Piece in Chennai, Dhaka and Würzburger before making it to Montreal. This is not a good thing.
Nothing against any of those cities, but I’m not certain that I am comfortable with the idea of Montreal being culturally behind a town of about 150,00 people in northern Germany or the capital of Bangladesh. Call me culturally prejudiced or worse if you wish, but I’d kind of like to think that Montreal hasn’t fallen that far.
But enough of that, I’m not here to discuss cultural policy, I’m here to talk about the Ben J. Riepe Kompanie‘s Love | Death | Devil – The Piece. From as much as I can gather it is a compilation of what I would call the greatest bits from Love, Death and the Devil. As far as I can tell Love, Death and the Devil is kind of like the Ring Cycle in that it consists of five separate performances that do not necessarily have to be seen consecutively. (Image 1: The Chessboard Room, Image 2: The Dark Chamber, Image 3: Love, Sex and Vanity, Image 4: The White Chamber, Image 5: Labyrinth.)
Going through the Ben J. Riepe Kompanie‘s YouTube videos you can easily see things (costumes, moves, dialogue, etc.) that are common to things in the Images and The Piece. But let me back up a bit. When the show starts there’s a guy at a table in the back and a woman beside a stuffed deer on the other side of the stage also in back. The rest of the stage is bare except for some microphones.
What carries the performance, is that for just about the rest of the show, everyone is wearing some sort of animal mask. Besides the bunny masks, ape masks, sheep masks and there were probably some animals that I missed. The dancing itself isn’t so much dancing as structured and controlled movement. There’s some screaming, some simulated sodomy, some weird yoga poses and talking through a megaphone.
In other words it’s kind of rough, violent without any real bloodshed and the type of show that can make you wince if you aren’t quite prepared for it. But trying to find a plot or narrative was beyond me. I’m fairly certain that there wasn’t supposed to be one. But I’m still at a loss of trying to figure out the point.
Since I am not familiar with the Ben J. Riepe Kompanie or seen any of their previous work I was left scratching my head. It is obviously absurdist, with a strong dose of nihilism, angst and perhaps some surrealism, too. But no matter which angle I looked at it from, nor how hard I squinted I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around how it was depicting death, love or the devil for that matter.
Part of this obviously has to do with the fact that it is movement and not a play. But I also can’t help but wondering if the “greatest bits” nature of the piece is also a factor. Kind of like trying to make sense of the Variatio 4. a 1 Clav. from the Goldberg variations and the E flat-minor fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier after hearing them played like they were parts of the same piece.
Overall I’m not quite sure what to make of the piece. On one hand I do recognize that just because Mr. Riepe is speaking a language that I don’t completely understand doesn’t mean he isn’t making sense. But on the other hand it isn’t like I don’t understand it totally (kind of like my relationship with the language of Molière) and what parts I do understand don’t really make sense to me, if you get my drift.
Which brings us back to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, and longer since I studied it closely. But I’m certain I can find enough connections to make it worthwhile.
The first one that literally jumps up at me (ok, the second, after the rabbit) is where Fa-Hsuan Chen gets lifted up by her head. In chapter five, Alice meets the caterpillar and after eating some of the mushroom her head grows instantaneously. The third one is… OK, maybe there isn’t that much a similarity between Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Love | Death | Devil – The Piece.
Actually I might be confusing my Lewis Carrol and my Charleton Heston. With all the ape masks I might be able to find some commonalities with The Planet of the Apes.
But like Alice and to a lessor extent Planet of the Apres, The Piece has it’s own internal logic and once you are party to it, everything comes together and makes sense. They just forgot to invite me to the party.