Judith Staudinger

The performers carry the show in Ivana Müller’s new piece “Working Titles”, which has just been premiered in Vienna’s Brut theatre. They carry, but they don’t speak, because the choreographer and performance artist Ivana Müller, born in Croatia and now resident in Paris, examines what happens when a few basic ingredients of theatre are reduced to a minimum. She took a similar approach in some of her previous pieces such as “While We Were Holding It Together” and “Playing Ensemble Again and Again”. This time there is no spoken language: instead, dialogue and explanations are projected as supertitles on the black backdrop of the stage which, apart from hanging sections at the sides, forms an empty black box. There are no actors in the traditional sense, but instead we see headless, life-size puppets, carried by performers appearing under their private names, and who are thus simple stagehands in the service of the puppet theatre.

A cohesive story – OK, we’ve learned to do without that, but it’s a long time since we have seen such an uncompromising approach to the theme of narrative structure. So it’s quite logical that “Working Titles” forms part of Wiener Brut’s Telling Time series (being presented in its third edition) before setting off on a long journey that will take it from Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Utrecht via Hamburg to Berlin and then on to Maastricht. The impressive list of venues that could already be included in the playbill for the world premiere reflects the importance now being attached internationally to Ivana Müller’s work. The many repeat performances will certainly also give the opportunity to tighten the screws of the production a little more, to the point where the piece – with its radical and intelligent concept – also becomes a performance with higher entertainment value and a better rhythmic flow.

Alcohol only at the weekends

At the moment, too many elements of the narrative often cancel each other out. Some parameters could be more nuanced and the tempo is intentionally kept very slow – only in a few short eruptions do the performers suddenly sprint across the stage as if galvanized. Some important themes, such as the interchangeability of the performers, are only touched on and are then lost in the slow-motion vortex of the narrative fragments and the dramatic levels. For instance when the pregnant Katja Dreyer introduces the pregnant puppet Zoë and the supertitles inform us that Dreyer will only be able to perform in “Working Titles” for as long as she is pregnant – after that she will be replaced by a another pregnant performer. Moving, beautiful, unsettling and amusing, as the piece is described in the playbill – “Working Titles” certainly still has the potential to become this. But in the world premiere these qualities were more to be surmised than experienced.

Nonetheless, Müller’s work is a striking experience. The headless puppets, cheap versions of shop-window mannequins, trashily dressed and aesthetically tending to ‘low look’, remain empty shells for fragments of familiar narrative patterns. Each puppet has the same body, differentiated only as female or male. All the specific external characteristics are randomly chosen and thus also changeable. Moreover, in the first part the figures are introduced only with brief but symptomatic descriptions, as often used in theatrical plays: name, age, marital status, profession, a few offhand details which still provide some narrative meat such as “sings in a choir” or “drinks alcohol only at the weekends”. And then from the second part onwards, guided by the grandiose announcements in the intertitles, one expects the usual stories and conflicts: who with whom? Catastrophe or happy end? Disaster movie or advertising spot?

Of course, it’s nothing like in the good old days of Chekhov, where (to paraphrase a statement by just this author), a pistol which in the first act hangs on the wall must be fired by the third act at the latest. No, here the figures do not walk into each other’s lives (or to be more precise, do not get carried into each other’s lives), but instead the written offstage ‘voice’ projected onto the backdrop reflects on precisely this non-collision, this refusal of the players to steer their figures through the usual actions.

Confusing the expectations

Because it gradually becomes clear that the figures represented by the puppets originate in the imagination of their carrier medium: the performers. And since this is theatre, the invented personages are allowed to engage in a critical dialogue with the creators and to demand that something nice should happen to them. They are allowed something else, too: to request minor changes to the past, in order to exert a positive influence on the future. This unspoken dialogue (as said, everything is communicated through the titles we read) is poetic, as are the encounters of the puppet performers in the constantly reoccurring, in narrative terms constantly re-illuminated and yet never fully resolved tableau, or the farewell of a dying puppet from its creator/carrier, whose artistic future it aims to secure by bequeathing its savings to her. The power relationships between the two groups are constantly changing: sometimes the performers stand in as scenery for scenes played out by their puppets, and at another moment the puppets are simply carried away and thus torn from the action in progress.

As so often in Ivana Müller’s work, we are compelled to realize how hard the audience’s imagination is required to work in order to join with the action on the stage. Expectations are awaked, confused and disappointed. When a decisive detail about a character is revealed two-thirds of the way through the piece, namely that the person is “black”, then a member of the audience realizes that the whole time he had quite naturally assumed that the character was “white”. Sounds from outside the black box create new, fictional tracks that lead nowhere or which determine the action (for instance when a female performer smiles every time a bell is rung). Apart from the lighting and sound, and of course the supertitles, “Working Titles” is wonderfully analogue – a kind of unplugged media critique with avatars of fabric, wire frame and foam rubber. The relationship with modern communication media and formats is not explicitly stated and nonetheless it can be constantly interpreted as a subtext. One great quality of this work is that it maintains its concept uncompromisingly. That’s why the twist at the end also functions so well: after the hour or so of theatre without a spoken word, the audience is hungering for voices, and these are indeed promised, but it wouldn’t be “Working Titles” if this expectation of a closing dialogue or commentary were not to be disappointed in a humorous way.

Published in CORPUS