- Bestie Di Scenaby Emma Dante
A year after its debut at the Teatro Strehler, a successful run at the 2017 Avignon Festival, and an international tour, Emma Dante's Bestie di scena( Stage Beasts) returned to Milan. Co-produced by the Piccolo Teatro, Atto Unico/Compagnia Sud Costa Occidentale, Palermo's Teatro Biondo, and the Festival d'Avignon, the play was conceived by Dante, devised with former students of the Teatro Biondo's Scuola dei Mestieri dello Spettacolo (School for the-Performing Arts), and directed by her and members of Sud Costa Occidentale, Dante's Palermo-based theatre company. For a Dante scholar, Bestie di scenawas a fascinatingly self-referential play in which clear echoes of past productions emerged through gestures and props, giving them a new metatheatrical dimension. Yet, at the heart of Bestie di scenawas a continuation of Dante's investigation of the relationship between actors and audiences.
A postdramatic, physical tour de force, this seventy-five-minute performance had no plot, no dialogue, and no conventional characters, set, or costumes. While it toyed with spellbinding lighting and a variety of diegetic sounds, the play used no prerecorded music beyond a few bars from the Platters' Only You. Instead, the piece was comprised of a series of collaged, largely unrelated sequences. External forces initiated the causally linked dramatic action within each of these sequences. Reminiscent of the invisible powers lurking beyond the camera frame in Beckett's Act Without Words I, these backstage forces mimicked the generative process of improvisation-centric, leader-led collective creation as they offered the performers different stimuli.
From the moment that spectators entered the brightly lit house, they encountered ensemble members already warming up onstage. Evocative of the Living Theatre collective warm-ups and of Théâtre du Soleil's pre-show preparations conducted in full view of the audience, this strategy quickly positioned viewers as witnesses to and consumers of the process and product of theatre-making. The actors slowly moved from individual stretches to group exercises, which were all based on Dante's physical training method used by Sud Costa and inspired by Grotowski and Gabriele Vacis's actor training techniques. They then lined up along the proscenium, facing the audience, and exchanged long, sustained looks with those sitting in the auditorium. Their eyes dared them to continue looking as they began to disrobe, and they continued to do so even after they were completely naked. As the house lights dimmed, it was the relentlessness of the audience's gaze that ultimately compelled the actors to take notice of their nudity and express shame for their exposure. This forced recognition, effectively the first external stimulus they received, prompted them to action. It made them attempt to cover their bodies by clustering together and by using each other's flesh as a shield.
As the production progressed, an array of objects were slid, thrown, or flown onstage, each marking [End Page 219]the beginning of a new dramatic sequence. The contents of a colorful basin used for ablutions by the actors turned the Marley floor into a slippery water slide that treacherously tore huddling members of the company for one another. A large rectangular cloth was unspooled across the middle of the stage, serving both as a towel for the fourteen drenched actors and a refuge protecting their naked bodies from the prying eyes of the audience. Music boxes nailed to a long wooden board whooshed downstage. A talking doll emerged from the wings, mechanically wobbling its way center stage. Peanuts rained from the grid onto the stage, showering the unsuspecting performers, and floating brooms descended from above, encircling the ensemble.
External forces continued to introduce new objects throughout the play, beckoning suggested responses from the fourteen actors and inching them toward embodying particular actions or characters. For example, when a plastic water tank was pushed onstage, one by one the parched actors avidly drank from it. They then stood, holding their breath as if compelled to...