Omar Sangare: from Dialogue One at Williams to United Solo (usolo) on Forty-Second Street, with an Account of D1 2009 and Jonah Bokaer

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Omar Sangare in True Theatre Critic. Photo Leland Brewster.
Omar Sangare in True Theatre Critic. Photo Leland Brewster.

As Omar Sangare’s new enterprise, the United Solo Theatre Festival approaches (opens November 12), I’d like to offer a previously unpublished report on the 2009 season of its predecessor, the Dialogue One Festival at Williams College. Meanwhile, United Solo is enjoying lively ticket sales, with two performances already sold out and others filling rapidly. The response to the intial call for submissions was overwhelming, and there was so much excellent material to choose from, that the final selection is much larger than initially anticipated. A perusal of the schedule will show the wide range of subjects and styles in these international performances. While I plan to attend as many as apossible, I can recommend from personal experience Kali Quinn, a virtuousic Vermont-based artist, who is capable of really touching performances, the distinquished German actor, Herbert Kaluza, who will present a powerful Isaac Babel story, Glen Williamson, who has excelled in sensitive performances based on Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Goethe’s Faust (The Tragedy of Mephistopheles) and the Gospel of St. John), and Ilya Khodosh (a Berkshire Review contributor), a witty and intelligent writer and actor based in New York. Quinn, Kaluza, and Khodosh have all played in the Dialogue One Festival.

Omar Sangare founded the Dialogue One Festival for solo theatre in 2007 at Williams College, where he had just assumed a position as Assistant Professor of theatre studies. [about Dialogue One 2007 / about Dialogue One 2008: preview/review] Before that, he had built up a stellar reputation as a writer, poet, singer, and actor in his native Poland, receiving a Ph.D. from the theatre Academy in Warsaw, where he studied with the great film director, Andrzej Wajda, among others. His many talents came together in solo theatre, a field in which he is well-known in Central Europe and at international festivals. He was voted Best in Acting by the New York International Fringe Festival in 1997 for his one-man drama, True Theatre Critic. The same year Sangare was invited to the Jerzy Grotowski theatre in Wroclaw, Poland, where he won four prizes at the theatre Festival. The monodrama was presented also in Canada, England, Ukraine, Germany, and the United States, where it recently received the Best Performance Award at the San Francisco Fringe Festival.

Prof. Sangare intended Dialogue One as both a solo theatre festival of international scope and as a resource to bring internationally renowned solo theatre makers to Williams for the benefit of the students and faculty. (The term “theatre maker” is especially appropriate in solo theatre, in which the functions of playwright, actor, and director often overlap or are combined.) The festival is divided into two symbiotic parts. In one, select students from Sangare’s solo theatre class perform twenty-minute performances they have developed over the semester, and in the second, the winners of an international competition for professional actors perform hour-long plays. Last year the distinguished playwright, director, and actor, John Clancy, conducted a master class. As is the custom at festivals, there are awards for the best performance in both categories, as well as an extra prize for either a foreign-language performance or for general achievement.

On the one hand, Dialogue One has brought world class talent to Williamstown, to the immense benefit of the students; and, on the other, Williams, at least from a Thursday to a Saturday evening, becomes a magnet for solo theatre. The Festival should most definitely be a draw for enthusiasts in New York, Boston, and Montreal, if not farther away, since the professionals, who are scattered about North America and the world, can rarely be seen together, as they are at the Festival; and seeing them in concentration at a dedicated solo theatre festival is different from seeing them at a general fringe festival.

Four-time Academy nominee, Marsha Mason with Omar Sangare and Williams student Amanda O'Connor at Dialogue ONE Festival 2009.
Four-time Academy nominee, Marsha Mason with Omar Sangare and Williams student Amanda O'Connor at Dialogue ONE Festival 2009.

This year Dialogue One will continue for its fourth season as a one-evening event of standup comedy performances by Prof. Sangare’s current students on Saturday, October 30 at 8 pm in Goodrich Hall, while his new venture, United Solo (or usolo, as the group calls itself) will present the first annual United Solo Theatre Festival (ufest), an ambitious international program, which will extend from November 8th to November 21st at theatre ROW, 410 West 42nd Street, New York City. More about ufest later, though, including a complete schedule. First, I’d like to discuss last year’s Dialogue One.

Prof. Sangare was on sabbatical in the academic year 2009-2010, when he was teaching in London and active in numerous other projects, including laying the groundwork for usolo. He left the pedagogical section of Dialogue One in the more-than-capable hands of David Eppel, Professor of Theatre at Williams — another international figure, who divides his time between his native South Africa, Williamstown…and wherever else in the world an interesting season or part may emerge. (Prof. Eppel was an important figure in South African activist theatre during the struggles to overturn apartheid.) Meanwhile, Sangare filled the professional section with two performers, the remarkable dancer and choreographer, Jonah Bokaer, and himself, Omar Sangare, in his prize-winning one-man play, True Theatre Critic. I know that the local audience was especially happy to have a chance to see it, since it had not been performed locally before.

Tableau of Student Performers, directed by David Eppel, Dialogue One 2009. Photo Leland Brewster.
Tableau of Student Performers, directed by David Eppel, Dialogue One 2009. Photo Leland Brewster.

It was interesting to contrast Eppel’s didactic approach to Sangare’s. During the past two seasons, Prof. Sangare structured his class — and the performances — around specific historical characters, whose choice was left to the students. In the first Dialogue One, they stood on pedestals in the entrance hall before the performances, as if they were wax figures in Madame Tussaud’s. That striking arrangement was changed into a portrait gallery the second year, but the students continued with characterizations of historical and living figures. Just as each student made a highly personal decision in “adopting” their own characters from recent or more distant history, each approached the portrayal in his or her own way…with a healthy bit of dramaturgical guidance from Prof. Sangare. By contrast, Prof. Eppel suggested images and themes for his students, encouraging them to use them as the foundations or the fabric of whatever stories they chose to tell.

I first met Jonah Bokaer about eight years ago, when he was a rising star in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He was an outstanding, actually brilliant student in an advanced English language course I was teaching at the New School in the little spare time he had from the company and their performances at home and abroad. I’d receive submissions from places like France, Eastern Europe, Tokyo, and South Korea, all sent at some hour in the middle of the night.

When I saw him dance, he showed an uncanny mastery over every muscle and nerve in his well-formed and graceful body, as he negotiated some extremely complex and far from graceful movements. Even then he was already interested in computer-generated choreography. He eventually left the company to do his own work, which soon enough branched out into installations and performance art, as if he had gone beyond Cunningham towards the universality of Cage. I saw Bokaer’s work again in 2008 and, as usual, came away most impressed with the range of his invention: here choreography extended into drama, an almost flamboyant, Foremanesque creation, although I must say that the dancers he engaged couldn’t quite measure up to his own mastery in execution.

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Bokaer’s invention and style flourish on an aesthetic of discontinuity. In his work you will never see symmetrical attitudes or balanced sequences of movement, with the equilibrium of the beginning restored at the end. Both incident and form appear to unfold by chance, in Bokaer’s personal world of randomness, although there is throughout the performance a sense that he knows where he intends to go in the end. Cybernetics are present and active, both in the design of the performance, as the movement unfolds, and as sequences conclude. The presence of a MacBook on stage makes this explicit. Manipulated projections of the dancer’s body, both instantaneous and recorded, sometimes drained of shape into pure movement and/or color. In much of the earlier and later parts of the performance, he disappeared entirely from the immediate stage, leaving the audience to watch the digitally generated clouds of movement.

By contrast one scene involved only the dancer himself and his costume, and was anything but discontinuous, since he removed layer after layer, extending them from the top of the black box space to the stage and across it, laying each garment end to end in a prodigious strip-tease. If the projected images seemed to provide continuity, Mr. Bokaer appeared intermittently but potently, from different corners of the theatre, both above and below. One might be tempted to say that there was something cat-like in Bokaer’s ranginess, but, with his consciously imposed caesurae and fragmentary purposefulness, the nature of his movement seemed all the more essentially human, and specifically male. Bokaer is a tall, obviously extremely fit man in the prime of life, and this entails a certain mass and weight. He refuses to conceal this, consciously rejecting a tradition among male dancers, going back to ballet, of feigning weightlessness and rubbery flexibility. He emphasized his physicality in a sequence in which he climbed a ladder, naked, and consumed a large bottle of water, which brought about the expected alteration of his body. He also ate an apple during another segment. In this, he shows an understanding of the human form, of his own in particular, that is truly extraordinary.

If Bokaer stripped to the skin and beyond through x-ray video, to his own sinews and bones, Sangare went even further — into the soul, and that is where his play took place — in the interior hell of his character, a frustrated actor turned theatre critic — undone by a preliminary interview before his entrance exam for the theatre academy. The character is constantly tortured by his sense of failure and his bitterness towards others, above all his present colleagues, the theatre critics. In his title, True Theatre Critic, Sangare starts his audience off with a disturbing irony. If the theatre and the work of all its children — playwrights, directors, actors, set designers, and lighting directors — are a lie, a deception, intended to dupe the audience into credulity and a willingness to join them in their never-never land, how can a theatre critic partake of truth? Perhaps only by misunderstanding the craft, which is what made a critic out of a creator in the first place. And if the business of the theatre critic is founded on a thorough and profound misunderstanding of the stage, what value, or even relevance has he in this delusive world. None, of course. His world is disconnected, not only from the theatre, but from the “real world” as well, making True Theatre Critic a study in tormented ineffectuality and impotence.

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I should point out that this is a comedy, and the audience spent a good deal of their time in the dark laughing. We should not forget, however, that it is a Polish comedy, and Polish comedies never have happy endings. On the contrary, their protagonists more often than not find themselves reduced to a state of torment in the end. (If you meet a Pole on the street, and he asks you how you’re doing, never say “fine” or “great.” He’ll take you for a pretentious fool, who is lying just for the pleasure of making him feel worse about himself, and he’ll hate you for it. At least that’s what Pani Juszczak taught me in Polish 1.

The inner life of the true theatre critic can never really progress or accomplish any significant deed, ever change anything in the material world for the better, although he can perhaps, through his words, change things for the worse for the unfortunate theatre-maker who finds himself in his sights. From without there are also signs of constant stress and contention. The opposing forces among the critics and within his own mind virtually lay the critic low, reducing him to a true non-entity. This existential annihilation is not stark like Beckett’s or brutal like Pinter’s, it is baroque in its abundance of verbal and physical wit. The sudden, trenchant contradictions in the critic’s ravings, as well as his penchant for fume-like fancies, recall Shakespeare, a fixture in Polish culture for generations, as his allusions to Hamlet and mention of Sir Laurence Olivier make clear.

Within this internal microcosm, Sangare is constantly on the move. He slips into expressive contortions with an elegance that does in fact suggest feline shape-shifting. As intense as his character’s emotions are, and as sudden and even violent his outbursts, their surface is soft and polished. Even in anger the actor speaks with a velvety baritone, although he often breaks down syntax and words into disconnected fragments and incoherent ticks, moans, and animal noises. He often subverts lines from the classics, Hamlet, for example, in this way. Prof. Sangare has been performing in English, both in the UK and in the US for many years. He has been living and working mostly in the United States since 2006, and his recent performances of True Theatre Critic have been in English. Still, the cerebral concept of the craft of theatre and its relation to criticism and the theatrical establishment is essentially Polish in character. Plays about the theatre and its denizens are popular with American playwrights as well, but their approach is quite different, concentrating more on the interpersonal and social aspects of the problem — the alienation of people who have chosen to work in the illusionary world of the theatre. Life would be much easier it the workers on stage could occupy themselves more with the truth of theatre, but the art requires them to immerse themselves in its deception. The truth that may or may not have exist in the playwright’s mind as he writes takes care of itself. An actor or a director’s work rarely gets healthy nourishment from interpretation: the results sound pedantic or preachy. (What does this mean for Regietheatre, then?) While a good critic may indulge to some modest extent, most choose the role of judges. Hence Sangare’s critic, who originated on stage, becomes totally lost in the maze of contradictory emotions and resentments he has created for himself. He has channelled his creative energy into the creation of his own delusional cosmos.

Creating as a full participant in the theatre — writer, actor, director — Omar Sangare has used his multi-sided perspective to create an especially profound vision in his play about theatre. Unfortunately for those who, like me, admire his work, he will be working entirely offstage in the upcoming United Solo Festival, but this does not rule out performances in future festivals.

In any case, if we take his three Dialogue One Festivals as a guide, it should be a rich and exciting two weeks on Forty-Second Street. Click here for a complete listing.

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