The House of Fitzcarraldo
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 7, 2012
Imagine the chaotic postmodern aesthetic of Radiohole blended with the rigorous precision of the SITI Company, glued together with the gleeful anarchic spirit of the Marx Brothers. That, maybe, gives you an idea of the cheerful, buoyant, engaging and entertaining performance style of Buran Theatre Company.
Now imagine all of that mashed up with the Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo, memoirs of Herzog and the film's star Klaus Kinski, a passel of songs about rivers and dreams ("Ol' Man River," "Beautiful Dreamer"; that sort of thing), and a broadly satirical take on self-referential, self-indulgent art-making...and that's The House of Fitzcarraldo. Now playing at the Brick following appearances in Missouri, Kansas, New Mexico, and Nevada, this wildly diverting show—my first experience of Buran—definitely needs to be on your "must-see" list if, like me, you're interested in theater that's inventive, challenging, and fun.
The most important thing I can emphasize is fun: HoF is a blast, from the pre-show audience interaction (we're taught by a Peruvian native to tug on a rope) to the beer-can popping finale. The next important thing is that much of the show's delight stems from its continual nonstop surprises. I don't want to spoil them for you, so I'll stick with what's in the press release:
In 1979 director Werner Herzog and his megalomaniac best friend, Klaus Kinski, pulled a 300-ton steamship over a mountain under its own steam.
The occasion for Herzog and Kinski's stunt was the filming of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, about an egoist/entrepreneur who decides to build an opera house in the South American jungle. According to Wikipedia, "Herzog believed that no one had ever performed a similar feat in history, and likely never will again, calling himself 'Conquistador of the Useless'." HoF investigates—broadly, wittily, bemusedly, and sometimes quite seriously—the impulses beneath such a notion. It presents versions of the director Herzog and the movie star Kinski that are essentially all id, and demonstrates the testosterone-laden antics that would necessarily arise from the collaboration/clash of these titanic personalities.
In doing so, the Buran ensemble steps in and out of their established storyline—the making of the movie in the Peruvian jungle, with the audience taking the role of local natives enlisted to assist with the towing of the ship over the mountain—and goes off on a variety of tangents (Ernest Shackleton is listed as a character in the program) and sings and performs a lot of songs. Christopher Luxem, on guitar, stage left, is the calming anchor (he is co-composer with Casey Mraz; their songs are great and he is terrifically talented). The rest of the company—Jud Knudsen (Klaus), Adam R. Burnett (Herzog), Hilary Kelman, Henry Bial, Brady Blevins, and Geraldo Mercado—propel the narrative and detour away from it, to comment on it (or, sometimes, to do something else). These are remarkably adept performers, versatile and possessed of strong presence: the anarchy of the show works because we know we're in good hands right from the start.
Burnett and Knudsen are also the co-artistic directors of Buran, and Burnett and Bial wrote the lyrics. The show is credited as being written and created by the company, and the director listed in the program is one Nikolas Weir, who we actually meet during the course of HoF though, like everything else that happens during this crazy hour, he is not what you would expect.
What else to say? Cast assumptions and inhibitions aside. Be prepared to immerse yourself in the world of Herzog, Kinski, and Buran. Be ready to hear "Moon River" as you've never heard it before. And be excited, as I know I am, to experience this inventive indie theater company again—I am looking forward to spending much more time with Buran Theatre in the future.