Adapted by Andràs Visky & Adam Boncz
Based on the Nobel Prize-winning novel Fatelessness, by Imre Kertész
Directed by Melissa Lorraine
Produced by Theatre Y
Playing at Chopin Theatre, Chicago
“What I discovered in Auschwitz is the human condition, the end point of a great adventure, where the European traveler arrived after his two-thousand-year-old moral and cultural history.”
— Imre Kertész, from his 2002 Nobel Lecture
An Avant-Garde Testament to the Holocaust
One year ago, Imre Kertész died, leaving behind a legacy of writing, many of the themes of which were born from his time in the Nazi concentration camps. Written in the 1970s, Fatelessness, his most recognized work, received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Literature. What is striking about the novel, to quote Director Melissa Lorraine, is its teenage protagonist’s “wholly unsentimental voice,” which resembles its author’s own uncommon perspective on the events.
Theatre Y’s production of Fatelessness in some way preserves this “unsentimental voice”—both literally and aesthetically. The radio play (of the same title) that was adapted from the novel by Andràs Visky is played through speakers, spoken by Michael Doonan, in whose adaptive voice I could hear disassociated irony playing over his underlying lifeless defeat. As this “narration,” so to speak, plays, Benjamin Holliday Wardell (characterized as “Dance” in the playbill) “performs” a physically rigorous yoga routine on a mat as two low-angled stage lights cast his nimble, bare body’s reflection upon an all-black background. The effect of these elements, so combined, is stark, yet alluring; disconnected, yet congruous. It is sincerely unsentimental.
Given the subject, perhaps even more than most performance art pieces (as I would categorize this), Fatelessness defies a catchy or otherwise broad synopsis: it is an experience—and a mature experience at that, insofar as this production offers far more in terms of contemplation than entertainment, far more than any production I’ve ever seen. That being said, the production is a strangely absorbing success on its own terms—between Wardell’s incredible discipline and flexibility and the unique retelling of a Holocaust survival, I was surprised by how entranced I found myself—but for those who are not open to being so absorbed, it may be a long, even absurd hour.
This anti-climactic, anti-cathartic, un-showy production is intentionally so designed, however, so as to keep with the spirit of the novel. As Andràs Visky himself spoke of his novel, he might have made the dramatization “showier” by capturing only “the most powerful scenes.” But his novel’s hero, he says, “does not live his own time in the concentration camps, for neither his time nor his language, not even his own person, is really his. He doesn’t remember; he exists. . . . Instead of a spectacular series of great and tragic moments, he has to live through everything, which is oppressive and offers little variety, like life itself” (ibid). In an esoteric way, this timeless existence is present in the dissonant communion of Wardell’s meditatively absorbing yoga and Doonan’s narration of largely unspectacular events. This, though, I only understood during the post-show discussion (which I’d recommend staying for).
I would call Theatre Y’s production of Fatelessness daring, not least because it challenges its audience’s casual investment of attention and intellect, but especially because it offers no extraneous, aesthetic pretentions to disguise the challenge: it is sincerely—that is on principle, for a purpose—unsentimental. Personally, I found the casual and welcoming discussion after the performance more cultivating than the performance itself, but for admirers of avant-garde productions that imagine outside the (black)box, Fatelessness is a singular and fascinating theatrical experience.
Reviewed on 30 March 2017.
Playing at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W Division, Chicago. Tickets are $20, with $15 tickets for Students and Seniors. For tickets and information, call either the Chopin Theatre box office at 773-278-1500 or Theatre Y at 708-209-0183; or visit info@ChopinTheatre.com or Theatre-Y.com. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 4:00 p.m. through April 16th. Running time is 60 minutes with no intermission.