Venice Has a Biennale for Theater, Too

VENICE — What if David, the biblical hero who defeats Goliath, were a gay teenager with a taste for vogueing? The Italian director Giovanni Ortoleva makes the case for reinvention in “Saul,” a new play presented at the Venice Theater Biennale — but the character is also a metaphor for the entire festival, which concludes on Sunday.

While Venice has had a Theater Biennale since 1934, it still feels like a David to the Art Biennale’s Goliath. Misleadingly, the juggernaut contemporary art exhibition is regularly referred to as “the Venice Biennale,” but this city is actually awash with Biennales. Theater is a yearly fixture along with dance and music, while the art and architecture events happen every other year. Yet the performing arts’ presence remains more discreet.

It may be a blessing in disguise. This year’s lineup was blissfully free of the same old star directors who headline many international theater festivals. Antonio Latella, who has been at the event’s helm since 2017, appears more interested in theater-makers who fly below the radar. His first edition featured only female directors, and, in keeping with this year’s theme, “Dramaturgies,” the Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement went to a dramaturge, Jens Hillje, the co-director of Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater.

At the two-week Biennale, a sample of Mr. Latella’s finds proved invigorating. Not only does he go for unpredictable, diverse, boldly structured projects, but he takes the time to introduce artists, frequently programming two productions by the same director or company. This proved particularly beneficial for the Rotterdam-based collective Club Gewalt, whose nutty brand of musical theater swings wildly between opera, punk and pop references from one project to the next.

“Yuri — A Workout Opera,” the company’s opening act, was inspired by the troubled career of Yuri van Gelder, an artistic gymnast from the Netherlands. Club Gewalt’s tribute is staged as a 39-minute floor exercise, timed by a countdown clock. The seven cast members, who are clad in leotards and leggings and salute like gymnasts before their entrances and exits, sing and perform repetitive choreography reminiscent of both 1980s workout videos and the minimalist patterns of the American dance-maker Lucinda Childs.

A series of songs composed by the collective charts Mr. van Gelder’s path to a world title in 2005 — on the rings, his favorite apparatus — and subsequent struggles with drugs and alcohol. (In 2016, he was pulled from the Olympic rings final in Rio de Janeiro by the Dutch team after a night of drinking.)

While well realized, “Yuri — A Workout Opera” would be easy to dismiss as an unclassifiable oddity, but “Club Club Gewalt 5.0 Punk” gave the Biennale’s audience a sense of Club Gewalt’s range the next night. Described by the millennial collective as a “performance club night,” it started as a punk concert — with the audience standing and a bar at the ready — and morphed into immersive theater, delivered in a mix of Dutch and English.

One minute, a performer personifying “Kapitalismus,” or capitalism, delivered a spot-on imitation of Matthew McConaughey; the next, the audience was divided into teams to play “hard rock bingo,” where the prize was a chance to knock down a balloon marked “Eurocentrism” with a bat.

By the time the “Game of Thrones” characters Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow appeared to debate business issues and Donald Trump, the giddy inventiveness of Club Gewalt’s political cabaret had grown irresistible. Their work looks like nothing else on the European stage, and with any luck, an international career beckons.

Alongside the youthful experiments of Club Gewalt, the Venice Theater Biennale also gave a platform to an Australian duo with three decades’ experience. The director Susie Dee and the playwright Patricia Cornelius have crafted award-winning productions focusing on Australia’s underclass. Still, mainstream companies in their country shy from putting on their work because of its “more challenging” nature, Ms. Cornelius told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2017.

That’s a mistake because the two pieces of theirs at the Biennale, a 2015 work with an unprintable title that rhymes with “grit,” and “Love,” new this year, suggest Ms. Dee and Ms. Cornelius are producing exactly the kind of work that socially conscious theaters and audiences around the world are currently looking for. In “Love,” a teenager, Annie, works as a prostitute to support her girlfriend Tanya and Lorenzo, a drug addict. In the 2015 work, the easy banter of three women who have been ground down by abuse and poverty takes a dark turn when they commit a crime.

Ms. Cornelius’s excellent writing mostly steers clear of misery porn. Profanities and slang have no secrets for her and Ms. Dee, who lend them a rapid-fire musical rhythm: The swearing sequences in the 2015 work are especially virtuosic, and earned shocked laughter in Venice. The characters, served by superb casts, are alternately vile and vulnerable.

The Theater Biennale also serves as a training ground for young Italian artists. Over two to three years, a group of young directors and playwrights — known as the Biennale College — receive mentorship and opportunities to present works in progress. Both the winning director of the 2018-19 College, and Mr. Ortoleva, the recipient of a special mention, were invited to show complete productions at this year’s festival.

Mr. Ortoleva’s “Saul,” programmed at the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale, showed significant promise and imagination. In it, Mr. Ortoleva and his dramaturge, Riccardo Favaro, reimagine Saul, the first king of Israel and Judah according to the Old Testament, as an aging, apathetic rock star trapped in a lavish hotel suite.

The production, which also draws on a 1903 play of the same name by the French author André Gide, is at once faithful to Saul’s story and utterly idiosyncratic. The breakneck pace of the Italian dialogue made the English subtitles hard to follow, but it brought out the text’s Beckettian quality, especially in the early back-and-forth between the king, played with a kind of blasé charisma by Marco Cacciola, and his concerned son Jonathan.

Their routine is disrupted by the young David (Alessandro Bandini), who defeated Goliath at Saul’s command and became his successor. “Saul e David,” a 1964 sword-and-sandals film directed by Marcello Baldi, plays on a screen above the characters’ heads throughout. Mr. Ortoleva builds on the homoerotic tension between David and both Saul and Jonathan. While “Saul” meanders toward the end, a number of tightly directed scenes made up for it.

In one of them, at a dinner party, Saul found himself throwing spears at David on a loop, with increasingly fragmented, sped-up text. Here, and elsewhere at the Biennale, you could see theater-makers flexing their creative muscles with absurd, captivating insouciance.

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