nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
October 7, 2008
Before seeing Sunken Red, I had no idea that in 1942 the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies and set up concentration camps, imprisoning and torturing women and children. In this solo performance, Flemish actor Dirk Roofthooft plays a now-grown man who spent his earliest years in Tjiding, one such camp in present day Jakarta, Indonesia. The piece is based on an autobiographical novel by Jeroen Brouwers. The story is very compelling and this unknown period in history certainly worth speaking of, but the extremely slow pacing and repetitive nature of the production makes it difficult to stay invested.
When we first encounter Roofthooft, he is in a pajama-type outfit and scraping the calluses off his feet. After a short eternity of doing this, during which the house lights are still up, leaving the audience rather restless and confused as to whether this is part of the play or not, he rises and begins shuffling around the massive set, mumbling to himself. Roofthooft is extremely miked, so that we are always aware of his heavy breathing, the words he says under his breath. When he taps on his watch or crushes a plastic cup, it sounds like an explosion.
When Roofthooft finally addresses us, it is to tell us about his mother's funeral, many years prior, which he did not attend. He disjointedly attempts to tell us of her, yet he is constantly being interrupted by a timer which prompts him to shuffle over to his foot-scraping area and mumble about having to take his pills. Roofthooft speaks to us about his life, skipping back and forth from his mother, to a lover named Lisa, to his childhood in the camp. This is the real meat of the play. The grotesque stories are full of imagery and I spent most of the piece imagining his words in my head, the poetic language letting me see this little boy watch as his mother was beaten by the "Japs" as the rice she had hidden in her clothing fell from her.
Roofthooft's character is not a nice man; he is as callused as his feet. When he witnessed the aforementioned beating, his thought was: my mother's broken, I want another one. He tells us how he "left the camp a grizzled, old six-year-old." It's an interesting situation, his formative years were so heinous, that he now suffers from anxiety, selfishness, and is seemingly uncaring. When he starts coughing, he lights another cigarette. When his second wife is giving birth to his child, he will not go, and when he finally does, he deems her broken too and wants another. Yet we take pity on him and give this man, who does not want it, our sympathy on account of his experiences.
The set, designed by Peter Missotten, has long, narrow, shallow pools of water over half of it, projection screens of various sizes, and the entire back wall is covered in blinds. Yet director Guy Cassiers uses the set very little, other than to sometimes project Roofthooft's face to gigantic proportions. Roofthooft himself is tiny in the space, yet the projections and microphones make him, or the technological representation of him, huge.
The 90-minute play moves very slowly on account of the lack of action and the mumbling, consistently slow-paced monologue. The lines are delivered with an equal amount of import and it becomes a drone. Yet if you make yourself listen to the words, Brouwers's text tells an interesting, terrible story and holds some important poetic ideas on the nature of humanity. In particular Roofthooft's mantra, which redeemed his character (to a degree) in my mind, that "there is nothing that does not touch something else."