Arts & Culture

‘Kaspar’: thought-provoking, but no fun

Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010

Be warned: “Kaspar” is not a play about fun.

It is dark, thought-provoking and tragic. It features gripping performances, particularly by Jarrett Key ’13, who plays Kaspar’s primary incarnation, Kaspar 1.

“Kaspar,” Sock and Buskin’s senior slot production, opened Thursday night in Leeds Theatre. The play, written by Austrian playwright Peter Handke, is influenced by philosophies of language and social control. Kaspar represents a sort of “everyman” — he enters the play free, his perspective on the world unencumbered by the restrictions and sense of order language imposes. But as the play progresses, Kaspar is taught to speak, to label objects based on words and, ultimately, to lose his sense of liberty.

“Kaspar” lacks a conventional plot structure. There are no true characters — only incarnations of Kaspar and the Prompters, who introduce him to language. Actual dialogue is absent from the play, substituted with monologues and choruses philosophizing on language. Rather than a typical introduction, rising action, climax scheme, the play is divided into “phases,” with each phase addressing a new aspect of Kaspar’s development with language.

Directed by Ioana Jucan ’11, the play draws on Handke’s original script and makes use of voiceovers and projection screens. Jucan’s goal, she said, was to make the play applicable to the everyday lives of Brown students.

“The production also considers or extends the concept of language and the media, and I was very interested in this expansion of the notion of reality with the emergence of the digital and the virtual,” Jucan said.

Jucan, who is concentrating in Theatre Arts and Performance Studies and in Modern Culture and Media, said her background in MCM influenced her direction of the play. The use of technology in the play, for instance, was inspired partly by her interest in digital media and silent films.

Sets are minimal in “Kaspar.” A red wooden closet, a table and a tower of black chair-like objects make up all the physical props. Two screens project particular images from the sides of the theater, while a third one displays pictures from the front.

The mood in the theater is tense. The lights are dim, and the melancholy, instrumental soundtrack adds to the almost eerie vibe. Occasional bursts of rock music break the mood and are almost distracting — chords of The Police’s “Message in a Bottle,” for instance, feel more than a bit out of place. But for the most part, the play is consistent in its dark tone.

But the highlight of the show is, without a doubt, Key’s performance as Kaspar 1. Key is energetic, and his struggle to grasp language is convincing. The progression of his speech, from joyful stuttering to fearful to tragic, is done perfectly. Even in the second act, when actors switch roles and Key assumes the role of a Prompter, he is still the man to watch. His enunciation as a Prompter is cold and terrifying — exactly what the show calls for.

“Kaspar” is not shy about revealing its message — language traps its users. Sentences, the Prompters tell us, “impose order.” It’s a slightly pretentious message, yes, but one that is nevertheless interesting to consider and discuss. Moreover, it is well-integrated into the show.

Voiceovers enunciate in a unique Kaspar speech, and voices from cast members coalesce into a synchronized, commanding chorus that both emphasizes the language used and contributes to the tension in the atmosphere.

The play slows down in the second half — characters seem to move around less, and the constant ambiance of tragedy is almost exhausting to watch. The end drags on, with each phase seeming less and less necessary. Two hours is, after all, a long time to spend with one mood and one theme, especially when there isn’t any real plot to carry the show.

But particular moments toward the end energize “Kaspar.” In one sequence, the three Prompters switch their focus from Kaspar to directly address the audience. The change pulls the viewers into the play, creating — at least for that moment — an immersive experience. By the end, it feels good to get up from the theater. Although intellectually interesting, the play is hardly energizing.

Friday night’s performance also features a talk-back after the play. Thomas Kniesche, an associate professor of German Studies, will facilitate a discussion with interested audience and cast members regarding the play.

“I think I can just provide some context,” Kniesche said. “I think people will have questions after the play.”

“Kaspar” will run through Dec. 5 in Leeds Theatre. Performances will take place at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday.

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