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Going Dutch

September 17, 2007

I rarely experience as many emotions in an evening of theatre as I did on Friday night at Dutch multidisciplinary performance company Kassys' Kommer. The group performed at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

"Kommer" is the Dutch word for "grief" or "sorrow." The first half of the show takes place at a reception following a funeral. Nothing much happens. People make small-talk over canapes, console each other with hugs and kind words, and go for a breath of fresh air. That's about it. Despite the dour setting and downbeat title, I spent most of this part of the performance laughing.

The second half of the show moves from live performance to film as we watch the actors take a bow, leave the stage, and then continue their private, off-stage lives, on celluloid. One character goes to her other job as an air steward. Another takes his sports car for a wild ride. A third goes for a jog. I spent quite a bit of this section feeling alternately depressed and shocked. By the time the production drew to a close, I had to fight back the tears.

The content is bewilderingly superficial. Yet like Chekhov's dramas of "inaction" there is pathos and cruelty underneath the slight and often hilarious surface.

's power to move stems from its ability to convey behavior in that is so intensely human and yet so utterly pathetic that we can't help but feel mixed up. In the first half of the show, for example, one actor starts fiddling with a plant in a nearby planter. Like a bunch of lemmings, the rest of the actors join in. Within a few minutes, everyone is tearing the foliage to shreds and doing the most absurd things with the vegetation. Seemingly insignificant human habits are isolated and amplified to tragi-comic effect.

The second, half of the performance makes its greatest impact by showing how sordid peoples' lives when no one's looking. The fiction the actors perform on stage is a sad one, yet the "reality" of their existences once the lights go down is even worse. One character goes to visit her sick mother in hospital before returning to a poky apartment to pay the babysitter and comfort her crying infant. Another character buys a bag of French fries for his supper. In the next scene, he's back at home in his own ugly bedsit, eating not only fries but cramming cotton candy, tinned hotdogs, potato chips, candy and all manner of other junk food into his face. All these scenes are photographed with a merciless, candid lens. There's no emotion in the cinematography at all. The camera provides sort of voyeuristic blinking eye on the sad affair that is everyday life.

Throughout the show, there's a nagging sense that no matter how much bland pop music one listens to (and the show features a lot of overplayed, mass market radio hits, by the likes of Phil Collins and John Lennon) and no matter how much junk food one eats, one never feels satisfied. Life is an endless cycle of small losses. And then we die.

Kommer makes for a bold start to YBCA's new season. I only wish the groups the organization presents could stick around for longer than a couple of nights. Kommer represents Kassys' first San Francisco sojourn. I hope the company comes back again soon.


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