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Oedipus is Complex – Nikolaus Adler

Oedipus is Complex begins like Blade Runner with a dramatic voiceover – full of darkness and light.

From a crashed and cutup Volvo on the right hand side of the stage runs a red carpet across the full stage. Three austere single beds each under a single flourescent long hospital bulb. The bare brick walls of the Odeon distant in the dim light. A ruin of time.

A rich and jaded male voice intones a monologue scattered full of such phrases:

"I am a rat"
"The filth of the city"

In the distance, the sound of black rain.

Homunculus Theater 2008 Oedipus is Complex
Homunculus Theater 2008 Oedipus is Complex: opening dance

A beautiful young woman in a white blouse and black skirt drifts on and stares at the audience. A sixties Rolling Stones type song – think Paint it Black – starts to play and the woman begins to fling herself to the rhythms. She is gradually joined by another six dancers all convulsing with equal force.

At the end a blond man (Karl Schreiner) with the dangerous looks of Billy Idol at his prime remains alone with the young woman. The narrator tells the story of their love, as Laius bends Jocasta over the bed to take her crassly from behind. An ironic contrast to the narrator’s beautiful final phrase "the earth moved" – a moment full of truth concerning the origin of children and the nature of love.

Oedipus is born from between Hein’s legs as she sits on the right front bed with Schreiner. Plop, Kun-Chen Shih flops to the ground. A prophetic voice intones about how he will kill his father.

Kun Chen Shih born as Oedipus with mother Anna Hein
Kun Chen Shih born as Oedipus with mother Anna Hein

Two of the dancers (Karin Steinbrugger and Amadeus Berauer who alternate between dancing and observing, like a miniature Greek chorus) take the young Oedipus away and raise him.

When Oedipus returns, quickly enough a mass fight between the full cast starts to a soundtrack of soaring 80’s pop. The fight ends in a head butt from Kun-Chen Shih to Schreiner, with Schreiner sprawled dead at the front of the stage.

Homunculus golden girls Martina Haager Anna Hein Karin Steinbrugger
Homunculus golden girls Martina Haager,
Anna Hein and Karin Steinbrugger mourn the fallen Laius

Somehow Jocasta ends up lying on the bed to the left where Schreiner throws first glitter and then rose petals into an enormous fan. Visually very effective.

Karl Schreiner as Laius Anna Hein as Jocasta
Karl Schreiner as phantom Laius
returns to haunt Anna Hein as Jocasta

The wind whistles in the distance, the breath of night. The well-used sound effects make the space huge and sweeping and gave a cinematic atmosphere to the evening.

Later a lapdance from Hein ends in her mounting Kun-Chen Shih on one of the other beds. She pushes her hips down on him as head thrown back to the audience he moans in ecstasy or in pain.

About here the piece stopped for a bit of standup comedy from Martina Haager who very convincingly ran a late night lottery begging us to call in, Sunday night or not.

Martina Haager as infomercial Sphinx
Martina Haager as infomercial Sphinx

The same red opera subtitle LED board ran her handy number and exhortations to call and win. In 2008 does the Sphinx make her living doing late-night infomercials? It looks like it.

If all this sounds very stylish it was.

The costumes were particularly successful. The tones were very simple. Lots of white, a little bit of black, a little bit of red and lots of charcoal, asphalt, dark silver – every shade of grey imaginable.

I spoke with the costume designer Corinne Rusch. Her inspiration points were Sin City and film noir. Not Blade Runner but Sin City is a child of Blade Runner and they are both children of film noir.

The lighting and set design was equally successful. In the lighting Sylvia Auer hit every correct note. The lights are in constant smooth movement, varying the spare set of Ariane Unfried. Both Auer and Rusch told me each collaborated closely with Adler but neither had much contact with the other until they hit the rehearsal space.

Nikolaus Adler deserves credit for shared art direction in each area as well as music, together with Wolfgang Urban.

The music was fabulous and eclectic – from Vivaldi and Allegri to Nick Cave and Mirinda Sex Garden. Especially notable, each track matched its moment precisely. Never did you have a feeling that the choice of music was gratuitous or flashy. Nor did the varied epochs irritate as it often does. Each piece flowed naturally and provocatively into the next.

Overall, the production of Oedipus is Complex had a lot in common with film production. An excellent team assembled under an experienced producer, each element collaborating under the director in a collective vision.

So the look and feel was perfect. Finished, as I noted in my review of Damien Atal’s Three Spells. Even more so as Oedipus is Complex is a much bigger production than Three Spells.

One part of the achievement of Oedipus is Complex is to put a full dance company back on stage in Vienna. Too often in the last while we’ve been reduced to solos or duets for reasons of budget. On the few occasions a full company has appeared decorations have been notoriously absent. Homunculus’s Nicolas Selimov and Sonja Haupt deserve full credit for assembling such a complete and outstanding production on the backbone of the principle Homonculus dancers.

All wonderful, but beyond look and feel, what does Oedipus is Complex leave us with? Unfortunately not enough.

The voice over was a combination of original text from Adler, with fragments from cinema directors Abel Ferrara and Michelangelo Antonioni. As atmospheric and entertaining as the text was, the monologues may have been the one place Adler went over the top. So much darkness and hatred and loathing and despair – but in the service of what greater idea?

I saw the piece twice and I’m still not quite sure what Adler wanted to say if anything. The production screams out "I’m clever and talented and have outstanding taste. My friends are damn fine dancers and talented actors as well, by the way."

That might sound like condemnation. But in the context of contemporary choreography in Vienna, clever and visually engaging is already an incredible achievement. It’s a damn sight better than "I can’t afford decorations or dancers and won’t be bothered to find the budget or the donations to get some so I’ll lie around on the stage moving my left arm in 5 degree increments for hours until you get tired of sitting there and leave the theater."

Oedipus is Complex is decadent art – in Adler’s world everything important has already been said (hence Adler reaches out to Ancient Greece to take one of Western theater’s defining stories) and all that matters is the style of telling it. Adler ends up being a prism refracting ancient tales through a modern and well-cultured world view.

Anna Hein incest with son
Anna Hein incest with patricidal but 
grief-stricken Oedipal son Kun-Chen Shih 

Again this is not a criticism. We are past the point of naïve art in European choreography or any other discipline for that matter. Anyone who went to dance, art or theater school forcibly knows tradition. We can’t work anymore without tradition. Occasionally comes along something totally fresh – ghetto art – usually its inventors don’t have a formal dance education. But even this exception proves the rule.

As modern Europeans, we can’t help but make decadent art. Adler accepts that inevitability and swims in it with references to film, theater, dance, art and music history.

Happily enough most of the work with the dancers was more straightforward. Adler asked each of them to play his or her heart out. For the most part, their work was entirely deadpan. Without this commitment from the cast, Oedipus is Complex would fall apart under the weight of its own self-consciousness.

An an audience we also take Oedipus is Complex seriously until near the end, when it becomes apparent that we’ve had all icing and no cake.

For example, the second special trait of Anna Hein’s dancing is her emotional presence – an absolute belief in her character and in the moment. She is the perfect play actor – nothing else is real to her except the moment. Hein can bring an audience to tears in seconds. In Oedipus is Complex Nikolaus Adler did not take full advantage of this talent – he didn’t give Hein enough of a character to which to fasten herself. So even Anna Hein’s performance was somehow distant.

Hein could also have been given richer choreography to work with. None of her movement in Oedipus is Complex is especially memorable. Having seen Hein at speed, her steps as Jocasta seem like a missed opportunity.

In the second half there were other strange moments:

Karl Schreiner comes out and determinedly grabs the microphone at the front of the stage and grunts metallically into the microphone. Voice transmutation is a trope often used by Chris Haring (in at least three productions I’ve seen). Chris uses it effectively and with purpose – many of Haring’s characters are half machine-half human. Here the computerized grunting just seemed an affect – particularly as Schreiner was lip-syncing rather unconvincingly before walking away from his microphone. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Karl Schreiner as digital demon Boris Nebyla as blind Oedipus
Karl Schreiner as digital demon Boris Nebyla as blind Oedipus

Boris Nebyla comes out in a dark suit, red t-shirt and enormous dark glasses as the blind Oedipus and teaches Kun-Chen Shih how to be himself in a strange and long duet between the two men. Sometimes very touching, sometimes simply camp.

Boris Nebyla as blind Oedipus teaches Kun Chen Shih to see with a stick
Boris Nebyla as blind Oedipus teaches Kun Chen Shih to see with a stick

Still later Kun-Chen Shih writhes on the ground in pain at killing his own father asking what has he done. This scene which should shake us to the core left me thinking of Gollum’s whimpering about the ring in Lord of the Rings. To silence the critics Kun-Chen Shih then goes to sit on a bed and cuts out his own tongue. A torrent of red blood spills down his white shirt. But one still didn’t feel as strongly for his pain as circumstances warranted.

Kun Chen Shih cuts out his tongue
Kun Chen Shih cuts out his tongue

In general, while a fine performer in his own right, Kun-Chen Shih was overmatched by Hein as Jocasta and Schreiner as Laius. With a highly magnetic male lead in the role of Oedipus, Oedipus is Complex would have been better balanced and more compelling.

Just before the end, the voice over booms out:

Ich bin ein Schwein, ein Rat, ich bin Oedipus.

Why do we need to hear this at this point? It seems either overly portentous or high irony, either of which seem out of place within the context of self-mutilation and patricide.

The coda at the end is not longer Oedipus’s voice, but the flirtatious voice of a woman:

Liebts du mich eigentlich noch? So viel wie am Anfang?
[Do you still love me? So much as at the beginning?]

Not as much as at the beginning. Clever is not felt. You promised so much at the start tonight and fulfilled only a part.

But better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all.


  1. Richard Certain Richard Certain

    mi gusta!

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