As a concept, P.S. 122’s Tower of Babel was immediately intriguing to me: the event was described as a “full-immersion theater experience” in which audiences of 25 would be tucked into bed and told stories in foreign tongues by 25 different storytellers. There would be tea, groovy music and far-out video projections.
But when the night of the performance came I got cold feet. As if anybody needed reminding, the local media outlets had spent the week gleefully trumpeting the news that bed bugs were back in a big way. The Tower of Babel beds would switch occupants 14 times a night. Would the linens be changed after every performance? (Would the sheets be tucked or un-tucked?)
I was severely tempted to back out. Aside from the hygienic issues, that sort of in-your-face theatrical encounter can sometimes be too touchy-feely for my taste. Call me a complacent enabler of bourgeois theater, but I typically prefer to watch shows in the dark as part of an anonymous collective. (It may also be that I’m permanently scarred by that “Get a Life” episode where Chris Elliot stars in a confrontational production of Zoo Animals on Wheels.)
Happily, my hang-ups were groundless. It was the sublime, unforgettable “total immersion” experience I had hoped for. And, though I hate to write one of those frustrating rave reviews about a show that’s now over, well, it’s over. But don’t blame me, blame P.S. 122; Tower of Babel stood downtown for just four days.
Writing about this event in any “objective”, impersonal way would do it a disservice. The production was so intimate and individualized that I can really only share my one personal experience; it’s likely that the 24 other spectators each had their own, alternate impressions.
Before the performance began, we were seated in the upstairs hallway of P.S. 122, where we waited to be escorted, one at a time, into the space. The friend who had accompanied me to the show was taken away by the time I returned from the bathroom, leaving me to sit alone and wait.
And wait. One after another, my fellow bunk-mates were approached by various friendly greeters, who politely welcomed them and, in soft tones, beckoned them into the “tower”. There was something about the manner in which they were taken, seemingly at random, that invoked a surreal, Bardo-like atmosphere in the hallway. When would my number come up?
I was finally led into a large space filled with beds, soft lighting, and ambient music. Because I was the last to go, the others were already serenely lying in bed gazing at the Koyaanisqatsi-esque video projections.
My bed was turned back (no sign of bed bugs) and I was asked to remove my shoes. I climbed in and tea appeared on the night stand beside me. An empty chair at my bedside echoed the empty chairs at all the other bedsides; the cumulative effect was a kind of sustained chord of mystery.
I propped my head up on the pillows and watched close-up images of a scarab in its Sisyphisian struggle to push dinner - a huge ball of dung - up a hill. This is the insect worshipped by the Egyptians as Ra, who rolled the sun across the sky and buried it at night. Slowly, the frame pulled back to reveal the beetle, now tiny and insignificant, laboring across a wide gravel road.
The video and music faded out as a group of men and women silently entered our collective bedroom. They seemed to be choosing their subjects at random; a man circled my bed and almost took a seat before finally selecting the next bed over. (This was a lucky break for me - more on that later.)
My storyteller was a friendly woman, neither young nor old, who offered her hand, saying, “Welcome to the Tower of Babel.” Nothing more was said and there was a pregnant pause.
Then voices flooded the room in a rhapsody of incoherence. There wasn't a word of English spoken. The man who had almost sat at my bedside spoke a Chinese dialect; I heard echoes of Senegalese, Italian, Greek and other unfamiliar tongues. My storyteller’s language was, to me, not quite identifiable. It sounded almost like German or Dutch, but it wasn’t.
In the spirit of "immersion", I stretched out and listened to her story, which was very animated and, judging by the different voices she used, seemed to involve talking barnyard animals. The narrative peaked with a boisterous snorting sound and I laughed without knowing why, like some sort of village idiot. And that was it; it was over in less than ten minutes. She fell silent and the others finished soon after.
After another rich pause, each of us bedridden Babylonians were encouraged to chat with our visitors in English. She asked if I knew her language and I guessed it on the fifth or sixth try. (But I was instructed to not feel stupid because Norwegian is only spoken by 4 million people.)
It turns out that her story was a Norwegian folktale about a fugitive pancake who leaps from a poor family’s frying pan and rolls away, living life on the run from one ravenous animal after another, until finally a treacherous pig cons the pancake into traversing a river atop his snout. You can guess what happened to that poor, naïve pancake mid-stream. [Disclosure: I used to have a bit of a pancake “problem”.]
Tower of Babel was originally produced in old Amsterdam four years ago by Lidy Six and Robert Steijn. (myspace) Their stated intention is “to bypass language and overcome barriers of ‘us and them’ while inventing a new vocabulary and putting a human face – 25 to be exact – to issues of globalization and immigration.”
What perhaps cannot be conveyed in any language is the atmosphere created when an adult is tucked into bed and showered with music, images and unintelligible stories. Bed-time is a nightly ritual that habitually evokes a mood of warmth, privacy and, for the privileged, secure vulnerability. I interpreted the event as a rare opportunity to experience that intimate state of mind in a public setting.
So it makes sense that Tower of Babel was promoted as a ritual; we were invited to leave behind the routine of “going to the theater” and float collectively along a rolling river of foreign tongues. Though it might seem all that chattering would add up to cacophony, the end result was an almost musical harmony.
Needless to say, I was transported. My storyteller sensed this and withdrew, though not before I got her card. Her name is Solveig Kjøk; she’s a New York-based artist whose work is very much worth a look here.
We were free to recline and muse while the music and video started again. Fittingly, my serene little meditation on life, death and diversity was dragged back to earth by the storyteller who almost chose my bedside. He was still yapping - in English and in breathlessly geeked-out tones - about his story, which was adapted from a three-volume novel about some rare flower in a cave during the Ming Dynasty. He went on and on about what a great book it was and how the woman lying prone beneath him – who couldn’t seem to get a word in edgewise – should definitely check it out and blah blah blah blah blah.
So it was time to schlep back down to Babylon, though not unaffected. My impressions of the Tower of Babel, like futile attempts to share the mood of a dream, may only bear significance for me, but that too is fitting. Even when communicating in the lingua franca, all words are, to a certain degree, mere approximation, a series of little balloons kept aloft by the hope of being understood.
Photo via Cherrycan's Flickr