Clowning Around at Dschungel

John Cage’s music meets Evgeny Sitochin’s direction in a new MQ children’s comedy

On The Town | Peter Quince | December 2009 / January 2010

Silly critic: after three minutes of the Wiener Taschenoper’s A House Full of Music, a piece for schoolchildren about John Cage’s music, yours truly couldn’t help asking himself if Evgeny Sitochin might be the last humanist left in Viennese theater.  (The city of Mozart and Freud could use a fresh shot of that, no?)

In the snug, vaulted corner of the Museums Quartier known as "Dschungel," a theatrical venue dedicated to those cheerful weeds known as kids, writer Katja Hensel, designer Nives Widauer, director and clown Sitochin, actress Marie-Christine Friedrich and pianist Florian Müller wove a tapestry across the loom of Cage’s music, and their public seems to have inspired them with a child’s utter disdain of dogma.

Not a few children of "modern" composers are nonplussed when confronted with Mozart or Bach. Not a few grown-ups, confronted with John Cage, instantly turn into bad sports, forlorn and angry, à la "I-could-have-written-that." But children bypass copyright minutiae – they may know (with Cage) that they have already written it.

Accordingly, A House Full of Music starts not with Cage pieces but with Sitochin arriving home to grapple with gramophones and other temperamental household objects, their ecstatic, willful groans and crashes deftly amplified (sound: Wolfgang Musil). This clown’s run-ins with cutlery are literally slices of life – suddenly, clown theater seems the epitome of realism.

Like Buster Keaton, Sitochin (who has directed Chekhov in Vienna and St. Pölten, acted at the Burgtheater, and already done a clutch of children’s operas for the Taschenoper) virtually never smiles while clowning. Unlike Keaton, charging up the flicks with his pensive pizzazz, the stage actor Sitochin can afford to be understated – perhaps the first thing actors dabbling in "anti-naturalistic" theater seem to forfeit.

Apropos: isn’t there a basic misunderstanding of the word "radical" in theater now? Both the hard and the soft core direct their novel notions – Mr. Macbeth delivering the sleepwalking scene instead of his Lady at the Akademietheater, snow in August for Eugene Onegin at the Staatsoper – simultaneously over our heads and in our faces, instead of peering inwards down the tree trunk.

Here, in an auditorium faintly redolent with the Elysian whiff of baby powder, Sitochin wrinkles his brow, rumples his nose, and his most annoyed distensions trace a fluid, endless line. Just as Sitochin seems to have succumbed to the clamor of his household, a frizzy-haired actress pops out of the wardrobe. She has some explaining to do, just as we expect in any "introduction to," but Marie-Christine Friedrich’s saving grace is her absent-minded, overly distinct pronunciation of "John Cage" – as if she has to remind herself not only of his name, but that "John Cage" is a name at all.

Cage, fleetingly splayed in video form across the wardrobe in his eternally boyish bangs, told us that "there is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time," – imagine, he never even had small children! Indeed, kids might understand this concept in a completely different way from their parents, but A House Full of Music induces all ages to conceive music before consuming it. Soon, this tall teacher is exhorting the kids to make noise, but she suddenly, gracefully divests herself of authority, turning her two hands into a clock’s to guide the kids’ timing.

Unlike a teacher, a clock doesn’t take anything personally, or to quote Cage: "We need not destroy the past. It is gone."

Only towards the end do we hear Cage’s own music, played at the performance I attended by Florian Müller, with delicate, solid chord voicings (and countenance) that may make the children curious to know how delicate or solid Müller’s own voice is: We never find out, and don’t hear Sitochin’s either. This is the kind of suspense that burrows inside Cage’s music itself, in this case "Wintermusic" and "Baccanale", both so sparely paced but tonally pungent.

The afternoon ends suddenly, in time’s nick, with a sweet subjunctive: "If I could build something, I’d build a house. With a sofa that coughs, a door that squeaks and a kitchen that screams."

This is important theater – important enough to be a warm-up act for every single show in town, from Salome at the Staats to Faust at the Burg, not to mention Circus Roncali. But it has the impromptu, picnic mood of a Socratic dialogue, with enlightenment always just around the corner.

The gods sent in the clowns to disarm us, and although A House Full of Music was performed this time under the auspices of Wien Modern, the piece might be worth getting left back in school to see.

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    the vienna review December 2009 / January 2010