Venice Has a Biennale for Theater, Too

VENICE — What if David, the biblical hero who defeats Goliath, had been a homosexual teenager with a style for vogueing? The Italian director Giovanni Ortoleva makes the case for reinvention in “Saul,” a new play offered on the Venice Theater Biennale — however the character can be a metaphor for your entire competition, which concludes on Sunday.

While Venice has had a Theater Biennale since 1934, it nonetheless appears like a David to the Art Biennale’s Goliath. Misleadingly, the juggernaut modern artwork exhibition is usually known as “the Venice Biennale,” however this metropolis is definitely awash with Biennales. Theater is a yearly fixture together with dance and music, whereas the artwork and structure occasions occur each different 12 months. Yet the performing arts’ presence stays extra discreet.

It could also be a blessing in disguise. This 12 months’s lineup was blissfully freed from the identical previous star administrators who headline many worldwide theater festivals. Antonio Latella, who has been on the occasion’s helm since 2017, seems extra curious about theater-makers who fly beneath the radar. His first version featured solely feminine administrators, and, in line with this 12 months’s theme, “Dramaturgies,” the Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement went to a dramaturge, Jens Hillje, the co-director of Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater.

At the two-week Biennale, a pattern of Mr. Latella’s finds proved invigorating. Not solely does he go for unpredictable, various, boldly structured tasks, however he takes the time to introduce artists, continuously programming two productions by the identical director or firm. This proved notably useful for the Rotterdam-based collective Club Gewalt, whose nutty model of musical theater swings wildly between opera, punk and pop references from one venture to the following.

“Yuri — A Workout Opera,” the corporate’s opening act, was impressed by the troubled profession of Yuri van Gelder, a creative gymnast from the Netherlands. Club Gewalt’s tribute is staged as a 39-minute ground train, timed by a countdown clock. The seven forged members, who’re clad in leotards and leggings and salute like gymnasts earlier than their entrances and exits, sing and carry out repetitive choreography harking back to each 1980s exercise movies and the minimalist patterns of the American dance-maker Lucinda Childs.

A sequence of songs composed by the collective charts Mr. van Gelder’s path to a world title in 2005 — on the rings, his favourite equipment — and subsequent struggles with medicine and alcohol. (In 2016, he was pulled from the Olympic rings last in Rio de Janeiro by the Dutch group after a evening of consuming.)

While properly realized, “Yuri — A Workout Opera” can be straightforward to dismiss as an unclassifiable oddity, however “Club Club Gewalt 5.0 Punk” gave the Biennale’s viewers a sense of Club Gewalt’s vary the following evening. Described by the millennial collective as a “performance club night,” it began as a punk live performance — with the viewers standing and a bar on the prepared — and morphed into immersive theater, delivered in a mixture of Dutch and English.

One minute, a performer personifying “Kapitalismus,” or capitalism, delivered a spot-on imitation of Matthew McConaughey; the following, the viewers was divided into groups to play “hard rock bingo,” the place the prize was a probability to knock down a balloon marked “Eurocentrism” with a bat.

By the time the “Game of Thrones” characters Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow appeared to debate enterprise points and Donald Trump, the giddy inventiveness of Club Gewalt’s political cabaret had grown irresistible. Their work seems to be like nothing else on the European stage, and with a bit of luck, a global profession beckons.

Alongside the youthful experiments of Club Gewalt, the Venice Theater Biennale additionally gave a platform to an Australian duo with three a long time’ expertise. The director Susie Dee and the playwright Patricia Cornelius have crafted award-winning productions specializing in Australia’s underclass. Still, mainstream firms of their nation shy from placing on their work due to its “more challenging” nature, Ms. Cornelius told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2017.

That’s a mistake because the two pieces of theirs at the Biennale, a 2015 work with an unprintable title that rhymes with “grit,” and “Love,” new this year, suggest Ms. Dee and Ms. Cornelius are producing exactly the kind of work that socially conscious theaters and audiences around the world are currently looking for. In “Love,” a teenager, Annie, works as a prostitute to support her girlfriend Tanya and Lorenzo, a drug addict. In the 2015 work, the easy banter of three women who have been ground down by abuse and poverty takes a dark turn when they commit a crime.

Ms. Cornelius’s excellent writing mostly steers clear of misery porn. Profanities and slang have no secrets for her and Ms. Dee, who lend them a rapid-fire musical rhythm: The swearing sequences in the 2015 work are especially virtuosic, and earned shocked laughter in Venice. The characters, served by superb casts, are alternately vile and vulnerable.

The Theater Biennale also serves as a training ground for young Italian artists. Over two to three years, a group of young directors and playwrights — known as the Biennale College — receive mentorship and opportunities to present works in progress. Both the winning director of the 2018-19 College, and Mr. Ortoleva, the recipient of a special mention, were invited to show complete productions at this year’s festival.

Mr. Ortoleva’s “Saul,” programmed at the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale, showed significant promise and imagination. In it, Mr. Ortoleva and his dramaturge, Riccardo Favaro, reimagine Saul, the first king of Israel and Judah according to the Old Testament, as an aging, apathetic rock star trapped in a lavish hotel suite.

The production, which also draws on a 1903 play of the same name by the French author André Gide, is at once faithful to Saul’s story and utterly idiosyncratic. The breakneck pace of the Italian dialogue made the English subtitles hard to follow, but it brought out the text’s Beckettian quality, especially in the early back-and-forth between the king, played with a kind of blasé charisma by Marco Cacciola, and his concerned son Jonathan.

Their routine is disrupted by the young David (Alessandro Bandini), who defeated Goliath at Saul’s command and became his successor. “Saul e David,” a 1964 sword-and-sandals film directed by Marcello Baldi, plays on a screen above the characters’ heads throughout. Mr. Ortoleva builds on the homoerotic tension between David and both Saul and Jonathan. While “Saul” meanders toward the end, a number of tightly directed scenes made up for it.

In one of them, at a dinner party, Saul found himself throwing spears at David on a loop, with increasingly fragmented, sped-up text. Here, and elsewhere at the Biennale, you could see theater-makers flexing their creative muscles with absurd, captivating insouciance.

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