A glossy assessment of last year’s global theater festival
A year past the 2007 Prague Quadrennial, that Olympiad for scenographers, costumers and lighting technicians, the Theater Institute has at last issued a book on the event. Edited by Arnold Aronson, the famed American theater scholar who served as the PQ’s general commissioner, Reflections on the 2007 Prague Quadrennial is a fascinating publication that manages to serve three purposes simultaneously.
It is first and foremost a souvenir of the event, with more than 40 glossy pages of photographs of the festival. But it is also a keenly argued assessment of the PQ that includes quite a bit of stringent criticism. It is also, finally, a manifesto for the future, complete with ideas on how to move both the festival and theater further along into the 21st century.
For anyone who attended last year’s PQ (and I must note that I worked on the official PQ Catalogue as a sub-editor), Reflections vividly recaptures the festival’s staggering wealth of theatrical work from around the world, ranging from the exhibits within the various national pavilions to the performative aspect of the PQ, which often spilled out of the Industrial Palace in Holešovice onto the streets of Prague. There’s scenographer George Tsypin’s twisted skyscraper for a production of West Side Story; the sophisticated models for future productions of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita by young Latvian designers, who went on to collectively win the PQ’s top student prize; the street performances by Yvette Helin and Beau Geste; and the marvelous, interactive Czech exhibits by the Forman brothers, with their Mystery Boat Theater and their carnivalesque ENTRESORT.
While Aronson provides the book’s introduction, as well as one of the essays, five other theater scholars offer their own takes on the success of the PQ. What’s exciting is that they often disagree with each other on the festival and its various components, with spirited debates about certain of the national pavilions. While Aronson himself found the Swiss exhibit created by scenographer Muriel Gerstner to be “the most scenographic and most theatrical piece to be found at the PQ,” Ian Herbert found Gerstner’s black cube installation to be “questionable.”
Although there was some general disagreement among attendees about last year’s Golden Triga Award going to the Russian exhibit, “Our Chekhov: Twenty Years Later,” the critics of Reflections are more of a single mind, admiring the Tarkovskian subtleties of a flooded room “skillfully constructed from time-worn junk shop items,” in the words of critic Marie Zdeňková. This superb installation was one of the few that placed the public in the role of actor, as to fully explore the Russian room, one had to don galoshes and wade in.
There is also collective praise — and justly so — for the work of the Latvian designer Monika Pormale, and for the haunting designs of the Slovak scenographer Boris Kudlička, who also won one of the PQ’s top prizes. German scholar Thomas Irmer uses half of his essay to protest against his own country’s limited survey, making a case for the ignored designers Katrin Brack and Annette Kurz. He included photos of the unrepresented Brack’s designs for a production of Tartuffe clearly makes Irmer’s case that an injustice might have occurred.
The critics also agree that the PQ offered no new trends in theatrical design. Although the rise of new media and digital technology continues apace, there was no evidence of a global shift toward any new philosophy on staging a theatrical event. But one fairly recent trend is finally given a memorable title by Aronson. This is the staging of work in what appears to be a disintegrating theater, what Aronson brands a “menacing space.”
“This exposed space,” Aronson writes, “suggests decay, not only of the post-industrial world but of an effete, exhausted art form.”
Such a rigorous assessment of modern theater is sobering. That it comes wrapped in a souvenir program is invigorating for anyone serious about theater and the Prague Quadrennial’s future.
Reflections on the 2007 Prague Quadrennial
Edited by Arnold Aronson
Arts Institute - Theater Institute Prague, 112 pgs.
For more information, check www.pq.cz