Berliner Ensemble’s ‘Shakespeare Sonnets’ and teamLab’s ‘Flowers and People’

Hold your applause

One of the renowned teachers of classical Buddhism, an 11th-century Bengali named Atisha, coined 59 slogans under the heading of Lojong, or mind-training. These aphorisms remain relevant today. The last of the 59, and one of my favorites, is “Don’t expect applause.” While this isn’t literally directed toward performers (though it’s surely applicable to them), the slogan has been translated as “Don’t expect people to make a fuss over what you are doing.” The beloved meditation teacher Pema Chödrön has interpreted the aphorism as meaning “Don’t count on receiving credit for your good deeds. Just do them anyway!”

Scowling, grinning, and glowering: Elizabeth I in "Shakespeare's Sonnets."

Performing, acting, directing, playwriting, making art — all of these may be considered good deeds; all are forms of offering our talent and skill and goodness for the well-being of society. Every onstage act is a gift to the audience and in that sense benefits the giver. The giving is the happiness. If on top of the reward of giving, there is applause, acclamation, and ovation — well, that’s groovy gravy.

And yet actors and other entertainers look for applause. Directors of musical theater cue the audience to applaud after each and every number. A singer expects applause for the song. Comedians go for punch lines. Solo performers, comic stand-ups, and storytellers build spots for evoking laughter, which can serve as a form of applause. Audiences, for their part, when cued or by way of habit, obligingly deliver the sound of hands clapping. Stars of all stripes — TV, movies, pop culture — receive applause just by walking onstage. A standing ovation at the end of a performance has become commonplace. Applause fills the air.

No expectations

I’ve just seen Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Robert Wilson — the most avant of avant-garde directors — at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, performed in German (with English supertitles) by distinguished and newer members of the legendary Berliner Ensemble. After the second or third scene, though the scene ending was not pitched toward instant acclaim, someone started clapping and the rest of the house joined in.

That was it. Once turned toward the routine, the audience applauded at the end of every episode for the remainder of the event. I could only think of Robert Wilson lamenting the disruption of the flow of the show. Robert Wilson, “towering figure in the world of experimental theatre,” (New York Times) is not an entertainer and would not create theater with the expectation of applause.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets was a U.S. premiere. The production, featuring 25 sonnets set to music by Rufus Wainwright, was originally staged at the Berliner Ensemble in 2009 in honor of the 400th anniversary of the sonnets’ publication. Under Wilson’s direction, through actor tone and every other element of theater, the production refuses to romanticize romantic love. Indeed, romantic love seems not love at all but a ritualized enactment of one person’s shadow side attracted to another person’s shadow side (or Dark Lady side), regardless of gender. In Shakespeare’s Sonnets, romantic love lives in a cage of slats or comes with a jarring buzzer sound. It is visualized as a car wreck in a tree or a giant bicycle ride solo. It may emanate from a ten-foot-tall, all-white gas pump or through the arrow of Cupid. Emotionally, it is a wound seeping with aggression and desire, and its depiction by Robert Wilson and the Berliner Ensemble is funny and beautiful and, of course, skillful.   

Irrelevant or obsolete or mutable

The event opens on a distinctively Robert Wilson set: white, spacious, bare of trappings, and presenting the requisite elongated wooden side chair, though this time with a footstool added, for receiving the feet of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare’s queen. The seeming emptiness of the space allows the music-rich production to unfold through a revolving parade of unique and daring images created by light, form, four colors, and stylized acting.

Within a cast of 15, we are given four main characters, each costumed in a different color: Elizabeth I (and Elizabeth II) are played by a man — great of body and jowls; scowling, grinning, and glowering, he is orange-red wigged in wine-red robes. Shakespeare is played by a woman — slight, barely moving, attentive and birdlike in gold Elizabethan breeches, hose, and doublet. Cupid is played by a man — a chubby, big-bellied, balding baby in shiny white knickers and jacket. The Fool is played by a woman — cheerful, bouncy, and ingratiating in all-black jester’s motley with a foolish hat.

With women playing men and men playing women, or with either playing neither, gender is irrelevant or obsolete or mutable. The supporting cast appears either in white costumes with shocking red hair, or black with white hair or no hair, or bronze-gold with dark hair. Everyone is in whiteface, their features outlined in black, making masklike countenances.

The acting includes making faces: eyebrows are raised, tongues stick out, mouths grimace, and eyes stare. Groups of actors move together in procession, choreographed down to the arch of a wrist or the crook of a finger. Cupid flies in the air. Speech has been displaced by chant and song or silence. It’s an alternate world — different from traditional life and different from traditional theater. It’s a world of uncanny sights and musical sounds that supersede language, even the language of Shakespeare. Robert Wilson’s theater is a form of visual art.

The viewer becomes an actor

Across the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan at the Japan Society, there’s a gorgeous exhibit, Flowers and People, created by a collection of contemporary Japanese artists called teamLab, “an ultra-technologists group made up of specialists in the information society.” They make visual art feel like theater. They’ve filled the four walls and the floor of the gallery with a digital installation of flowers colored in exalting royal blues, yellows, greens, and fuchsias.

The work is the result of a computer program, not a prerecorded playback, so it continuously generates images differently in real time. Flowers emerge, grow, bud, bloom, scatter, wither, and fade away. Moreover, the spectators, just by being there, evoke further changes — depending on the posture, placement, or gesture of a spectator’s body, flowers may flourish and flowers may fade. The spectators are the “People” part of the exhibit title. Being in the room is like being inside a movie, in which the viewer becomes an actor.

When I was in the room, people looked and watched, up close and from afar, and they were quiet. I looked and watched, and then I sat down on the floor to be there more fully. If there had been flowers on the ceiling, I would have laid down. As it was, I would have liked to stay in the room for the rest of the day. It was a peaceful room and vibrant, displaying the vivid truth of impermanence, where no one was applauding and no one was expecting applause.

Are we done yet?

I once read somewhere that audiences applaud so they can go home. The idea is that during a performance an audience fuses, forging an entity. Individuals become non-individuated. If the audience were not to break the spell of community, they would stay in the theater. Audience members clap to separate into selves.

Of course, since the time of the Romans, audiences have clapped to express appreciation or esteem, using the sound of hands to give recognition. But even that is a way of separation — audience members lose themselves in identifying with the performers or characters and by clapping startle themselves into recognizing they are not the characters. They clap naturally, resuming themselves, and then they go home. It seems that applause is something natural, something essential, and nothing to be expected.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.