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New Island Festival Roundup

This festival of Dutch theater includes Ivo van Hove's haunting The Human Voice, the disturbing Wasteland, and the comedic Brothers.

Halina Reijn in La Voix Humaine
(© Jan Versweyveld)
Among the many, many artists participating in the New Island Festival, which runs on Governors Island through September 20, director Ivo van Hove may be the most familiar to New York theatergoers, thanks to his provocative productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, Hedda Gabler and The Misanthrope. So it's no surprise that his staging of Jean Cocteau's classic monologue La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice), starring Halina Reijn, is no less eye-opening and haunting than these previous works.

The piece centers on a woman's final phone call with her long-term partner. After a few humorous, if frantic, moments when she attempts to clear the line of other callers, she settles into an uncomfortable conversation. Initially, she's puts on a brave face for the man who has left her only days before. But before long, her true emotions creep to the fore. Anger and hurt lead her to manipulate the conversation with talk of suicide.

Van Hove's bluntly minimalist production, which unfolds behind a pane of glass in a bare, drab room, puts the intensity of the emotions -- and Reijns' bravura performance -- in striking bas relief. Indeed, the initial simplicity of the staging and the power of Reijns' work make some of van Hove's later directorial flourishes, such as crashing sound design and amplification of the actress' gorgeously mercurial voice, unnecessary. Ultimately, the rawness of the text -- which includes many fascinating observations about the power of the telephone to connect (and disconnect) -- is truly most powerful when delivered without adornments.

Equally brutal is Braakland (Wasteland), which comes to the Festival from director Lotte Van den Berg. This piece, which is staged in a remote and generally off-limits section of the island, begins strikingly as a man staggers onto the scene and collapses face-down onto the pavement of a parking lot, hundreds of feet away from the bleachers from which theatergoers watch. Before long, other characters walk purposefully toward him; but rather than offering assistance, they strip him of his clothes and don them, sort of like a pack of human hyenas.

Given these initial moments, it's difficult to not worry about what might befall the upwardly mobile-appearing woman who enters the scene, walking nervously through the staging area. Interestingly, when she's not set upon, she becomes, like the audience, transfixed by the environment into which she's wandered and by the actions of the people she sees. She watches in horror as a woman is raped and then offers no resistance as members of the human scavengers hurl the belongings of her purse onto the ground.

For a majority of Braakland the director's intent is perfectly clear -- to create a theatrical meditation on man's inhumanity to man. But as the production, which is performed with stunning specificity, shifts into its final third, its meaning becomes indistinct. It seems for a while that van den Berg is mordantly commenting on how people are able to care about the environment but not those around them when the characters begin collecting garbage that strews the area. But when the ringleader of the human pack begins to annihilate his followers, and dumps them into a grave that's been dug at the furthest reaches of the playing space, it's difficult to glean what van den Berg has meant to convey.

People's ability to hurt one another is also at the center of the decidedly lighter Broeders (Brothers), directed by Jetse Batelaan. Set within an outdoor wooden corral of sorts, the piece depicts a series of break-ups and reconciliations between characters who can only come to life when holding the hand of an attendant who, clad in white, looks as if he or she is some sort of emotional medic. If a person loses the hand of a guardian, he or she collapses and must be carried off in a stretcher. As the piece unfolds, theatergoers become aware that these helpmates aren't literal, but rather metaphorical incarnations of people's emotional reserves for the primary relationships in their lives. It's a clever idea and much of it is amusingly performed; yet Broeders feels over-extended despite its one-hour running-time.