The newest work from Vancouver, BC-based Kidd Pivot, Betroffenheit, which White Bird presented in Portland this weekend, is a collaboration with the Electric Company Theatre, featuring ECT’s director, Jonathan Young. Young wrote the script, provides voice-overs for all the performers and is the central performer in both acts. Kidd Pivot’s Crystal Pite choreographed the movement in this theater/dance hybrid. Any collaboration between the directors of these two accomplished companies would be impressive, but the deeply personal and difficult premise of this show has made Betroffenheit into a strange and special thing.
The title is a German word for “the state of having been met, stopped, struck or perplexed in the face of a particular event… a space and time where language ceases,” as translated by avant-garde theater director Anne Bogart. Though it is never directly explained in the performance, a real and horrific event is at the heart of the production: Six years to the day before the world premiere of Betroffenheit, Young’s only child, Azra, and two of her cousins died when the cabin in which they were sleeping caught fire during a family vacation. Young was sleeping in an adjacent cabin, but by the time he arrived at the fire, there was nothing he could do.
While Young feels that he never acquired full-blown PTSD, the tragedy understandably set him adrift in a state requiring a custom-built word like “betroffenheit.” During his recovery, Young researched (and perhaps experienced) some of the patterns and stages that survivors of trauma go through, and these contributed narrative structure to Betroffenheit. Kidd Pivot’s ability to tinker up macabre devices that dig into the darker parts of the human psyche make them uniquely qualified to bring these mental spaces to life.
The show begins in a dingy industrial room that feels like the basement of a nefarious lab. Heavy electrical cables plugged into ambiguous control boxes are the first actors to move in the opening darkness of the show, creeping under their own unearthly power across the stage and up the far wall before a harsh spotlight reveals Young cowering in a corner. Immediately, this establishes just enough not-quite-right-ness to the set for it to read more like a space in a dream than a representation of an actual room.
Young starts the show with raw energetic pacing and in intense conversation with various pre-recorded sources of himself, half armchair psychologist, half war-room strategist. There is a project at hand, and an urgent one, but the fretfulness is vague enough to make it clear that the urgency itself is the thing, that there is no outside project. The cyclical conversation is at once focused and confusing; Young must act, but he is stuck in this room and it seems there is nothing he can do. As Young careens around the stage, confronting many sources of his own voice, the members of Kidd Pivot scuttle around the edges with wild props, like worker demons in a strange cabaret.
Their scurrying quickly blooms into a loud, brassy, strange world of a sort of neurotic late-night talk show, with Young as the glam, self-reflecting host at the center of it all, where the other dancers not only speak with Young’s voice but move in jerky time with the rhythm of his words. There is a sinister in media res at play: It is clear that the show has no audience but has been played many, many times. At various stages Young is turned into a puppet, folded into a box, and tormented by imp-like spectres.
Betroffenheit is a truly dense show beyond easy description, but over and over “the event” and the psychological assignments and armor Young repeats to himself provide an ambiguous but unshakable foundation to the story. Something happened, and the chaos we see and the assertions we hear over and over have grown around the crater left by that event. Walking out for a deep breath during intermission I heard the same exclamation multiple times throughout the audience: “They’ve got more?”
The final act was simpler, more somber and almost defeated. Much of the self-soothing language of the first act referred to addiction, and in the second act we see its ravages. The stage is much more spare, and the dance more central than the narrative devices. Young’s monologue, his relationship to his demons, and his role in the glimpsed “show” are all at their most reduced point, the fanfare of the first act finally ground down to something honest and sad. All that was left was the shadow of a moment too enormous to forget. The set of the room is gone, but a facsimile, printed on a large cloth, comes rushing up to try to swallow Young again. The box he had been packed into creeps quietly across the stage behind him at one point, as he repeats to himself that there’s nothing new to find down there, there’s nothing left for him “down there.”
Learning the source of the performance intensifies the moments where Young’s imps and demons force him to repeat the moment, as he shouts, “It’s happening again,” or when they support his limp, overdosed body in a feeble attempt to force him to host his own show. It reminds us of the blurriness of the line between reality and the stories and structures we construct as a way to deal with it.
Something unforgettable happened to Young, and he created this fictional world to bring his tormented mental spaces to life. But, just like the show his character is trying to host, it’s only fictional, it’s just a performance. Right?