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Tomatoes and their consequences.

I wanted to be decorous, but I couldn't quite figure out how to show formal gratitude - in randy, unbuttoned Amsterdam, in newly-budding spring. Still, as an American invited to cover the 50th Holland Festival, a thank you was in order. Henry Kol, consul for cultural affairs in the Netherlands, warned me about Dutch manners before my trip. "The people in Amsterdam will seem brusque, maybe even uptight to an American. But actually, they appreciate nothing more than a bold attempt to push through that reserve." I soon discovered that the Dutch love rules, but principally because they revere the aphorism "rules are meant to be broken." (Just rent a bicycle in Amsterdam - you'll see what I mean.) So I was fully prepared, in Dutch tradition, to toss rotten fruit at the visiting Noh theatre troupe, or throw custard pies at Robert Wilson's one-man Hamlet or the veddy-British Royal National Theatre's cast in The Homecoming.

Flinging food from the wings is respected in these parts. Following the spirit of student revolutions in 1968 Paris, the University of Amsterdam was occupied in 1969 by young Hollanders who - if only to live up to Amsterdam's renegade reputation - felt disenfranchised in various ways from the Dutch establishment. This spawned one of our century's most colorful artistic revolutions, the "Tomato Action." Unhappy with the lack of recognition for experimental theatre companies, rabble-rousing theatre artists would interrupt performances using the most direct method available: pelting people with produce. While not quite matching the Italian Futurists in the arena of brazenness (or fascism, for that matter), these Amsterdamers have had more long-lasting effect on their country's theatre policy than Marinetti and company ever had on theirs.

To understand why such ludic display - so easily dismissed, absorbed and/or commodified within U.S. borders - foments actual change in Holland is spelled out in a publication from the Dutch Ministry of Cultural Affairs: "Civil disobedience as an expression of protest is taken seriously. This tolerance probably explains why a protest movement like Action Tomato could go on for five months, despite its obstructive and disruptive effects. It also explains why the protests were taken seriously and were a cause for debate in artistic and political circles and in the media, thereby accelerating the development of a new subsidy policy."

The result: While Holland had always subsidized its "official" theatres with a generosity that put most other countries to shame, the Ministry of Culture decided to subsidize all theatre groups, no matter how wildly experimental. From the late '70s to the present, Holland has become the center for innovative work in the performing arts, and the formerly disgruntled Dutch fringe is now the mainstream.

"I cannot think of any other country where that is true," says Dragan Klaic, director of the Netherlands Theatre Institute. "There is a tremendous diversity of performing artists in the Netherlands. Opera is very iconoclastic; dance is very non-narrative. But theatre here is, perhaps, the most interesting. The only time we see 'realistic' theatre is when a foreign company visits."

Klaic points out that "often, these theatres are centered around one strong visionary, and the new director of the Holland Festival is one such visionary." Klaic is referring to Ivo van Hove, 38, the Belgian artistic director of Het Zuidelijk Toneel, who will replace Jan van Vlijmen as the festival's director next year. Perhaps because of Holland's healthy theatre scene, the Holland Festival has become more associated with the world of classical music and opera over the years, and less with theatre and dance. (Outgoing director van Vlijmen is a composer who will retire to France to write music.) "This year's festival has more theatre offerings, which will probably anticipate the future, when Ivo takes over," van Vlijmen tells me. "Everybody is waiting to see how things will change." And van Hove, somehow still a Belgian wunderkind even as he approaches 40, who throws his own artistic tomatoes at the classical repertory (often with astonishing effect), is clearly determined to change things.

In an already-crowded galaxy of smart avant-gardians, van Hove has made a name for himself in Holland, winning the peer-juried Thalia Prize (unusual for an artist so young) for his entire life work. While many European auteurs have looked again and again at Shakespeare and Moliere, van Hove has a decided interest in canonical Yankees - particularly O'Neill and Williams. His stage adaptation of the 1968 John Cassavetes film Faces was daring, witty, moving, campy - somehow retaining all the adjectives associated with the filmmaker - and was the highlight of the festival.

The success of Koppen (Dutch for "Faces") hinged on a bold conceit: van Hove grouped members of the audience into threesomes through some inscrutable lottery, intentionally dividing couples and groups of friends attending the show. Armed with my number 86, I entered the vast gymnasium that is the theatre called De Brakke Grond, and squinted through the yellow sodium-lighted arena of about 100 beds. Finding bed #86, I slid under the covers next to the other two members of my threesome - an intrepid old lady and a jittery, pimpled teenager.

My initial concern was that this was shallow gimmickry, casually employed to point up the wife-swapping and infidelities in the story. But van Hove somehow manufactured the experience of being both inside and outside a Cassavetes film. The feeling of watching live action - sexy and groping, athletic and impassioned, with actors occasionally flopping on the corner of your or your neighbor's bed while snugly cuddled under covers as if in your bedroom watching TV, is peculiar enough. To that is added the sensation of doing this in front of dozens of other menages-a-trois. The event captured the self-consciously cinematic aesthetic of Cassavetes (if one recalls anything about Faces, it's faces!) in an enormous gymnasium with hundreds of people. By luck, pluck or brains, van Hove figured out the theatrical equivalent of the close-up.

Van Hove always seems to find his way into a play, taking pains to avoid any discernible fingerprint. His Desire Under the Elms placed live cows onstage ("The smell was wonderful!" he recalls), and his version of Jean Genet's The Splendids frightened many audience members out of the theatre, as motorized platforms scattered through the crowd and real machine guns shot ear-piercing rounds of blanks. "I wanted to find the Genet beauty-inugliness. So actors spit out their lines on platforms; but they didn't bathe, and we wouldn't wash their clothes. They smelled awful!"

But his art has moments of great tenderness, as shown in his A Streetcar Named Desire. "Kazan's film never lets you see the bathroom, but that is Blanche's place of peace. So, I put the bathtub centerstage, and let the actress retreat there, so the audience could see her comfort herself in that violent atmosphere. I also placed Eunice, a very small part in Williams's script, onstage the whole time - as a goddess, to comfort Stella occasionally." And his version of More Stately Mansions takes an evenhanded view of all the characters. "Too many versions of these late O'Neill plays, like Long Day's Journey into Night, try to find villains. But all these characters are forced to cut off part of themselves to become themselves. I come from a Catholic country, so I understand this."

When James Nicola saw More Stately Mansions in 1995, he immediately invited van Hove to stage it with American actors at New York Theatre Workshop (where it just completed its run on Oct. 26). Nicola, the Workshop's artistic director, visited Holland as a member of U.S./Netherlands Touring and Exchange Project's contemporary theatre delegation, which since 1992 has provided a context for collaboration between Dutch and U.S. theatre artists and producers. (Atlanta's 7 Stages, Philadelphia's U. Penn Annenberg Center and the Baltimore Project make up the American core with New York Theatre Workshop.) Nicola, who has taken several trips to Holland under the Project's auspices, was thrilled to "discover" van Hove. "After seeing his work, I would have let him come to my theatre to do anything, probably - we had discussed Williams and even The Bacchae but he loves O'Neill. I didn't argue."

In gestures all elbows and angles, van Hove whips sweeping statements into conversation that match his broad strokes onstage. O'Neill, for example, is "the very best" or "your country's Shakespeare"; Tennessee Williams was "too beautiful and so terribly pathetic," and contemporary French director Patrice Chereau (who van Hove claims as his greatest influence) is "a genius - no question about it." His rhetorical flourish may come from his early law studies, which he undertook to please his father. But his urge to stage something - anything - was strong and, in 1981, he would cobble together loose narrative fragments just to put something active in space. "These weren't really plays - I can't remember what the were about - but I needed an excuse to work in the theatre." With scenic artist Jan Versweyveld, van Hove has collaborated on 30 productions, eventually forming Her Zuidelijk Toneel in 1990.

Nicola claims that "van Hove blows the dust off O'Neill production tradition in this country." So, in his first U.S. production, van Hove is immediately playing in the same ballpark - and some might argue, the same league - as the Wooster Group. In fact, van Hove hopes to invite the Wooster Group to the 51st Holland Festival to stage "whatever they are working on at the moment," indicating a cutting-edge direction for this venerable European festival. "To tell the truth, the festival has to become more daring. Holland already has great avant-garde theatre, and music, and dance, so many thought there was no longer any need for the festival. But I want Holland to see the best of experimental international theatre. Because it's not the usual battle: Dutch audiences are already willing to see this kind of stuff."

Or to put it another way, when in Amsterdam. . . .
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Title Annotation:50th Holland Festival
Author:Drukman, Steven
Publication:American Theatre
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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