I’ve been a rock critic for most of my life, and I still found the sound at “Esta Breve Tragedia de la Carne (This Brief Tragedy of the Flesh)” — which the always adventurous Peak Performances series is currently presenting at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University — to be, at times, punishingly loud. This was surely on purpose. This experimental piece by Angélica Liddell’s Madrid-based Atra Bilis Teatro (Black Bile Theater) aims to take audience members out of their comfort zones.
Liddell, who wrote, directed and stars in this piece (and is responsible for the sets and costumes as well), describes it, in the program, with phrases such as “my search of what I believe is sacred,” “the search for the primitive state” and “the incandescent shadow that leaves us alone and overwhelms when we listen inside us to the thunder of God.” So she packs the piece with lots of stuff intended to deliver a primal jolt: In addition to the loud music, there is blood, and full-frontal nudity, and an actor in an Elephant Man mask, and other actors with missing limbs or features associated with Down syndrome, and a buzzing bee hive, and a glass chamber full of butterflies.
At times, Liddell’s intention seemed to be to juxtapose the primitive with the refined. In one scene, Paola Cabello Schoenmakers and Sarah Cabello Schoenmakers wore old-fashioned red dresses and danced elegantly (albeit unconventionally) while Liddell writhed around the floor, half-naked. Sounds heard throughout the evening ranged from Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” to the pulsating white noise of those amplified bees.
Liddell does not have much use for traditional elements of theater such as plot, dialogue and characters. “This Brief Tragedy of the Flesh” — the title is taken from an Emily Dickinson poem — is basically a series of artfully constructed images whose significance has more to do with their symbolic value than any kind of storytelling. Actors tend to move slowly and solemnly — almost ritualistically — as they help complete various tableaus.
“Esta Breve Tragedia de la Carne (This Brief Tragedy of the Flesh)” is pretty brief itself — just an hour or so — and certainly held my full attention for every minute. But I can’t say I know what Liddell was trying to do with it beyond, as she wrote in the comments I quoted above, trying to evoke the primitive and the sacred and the eternal. And maybe that’s a big enough subject to take on, though I did find myself yearning for something more concrete to grasp onto.
Needless to say, this piece isn’t for everybody (and, trust me, don’t even think about taking children). But Liddell — who has only performed in the United States once before, seven years ago in Seattle — is trying to stretch the boundaries of what theater can do. And I’m glad that Peak Performances is giving her the opportunity to do so, in New Jersey.
Remaining performances of “Esta Breve Tragedia de la Carne (This Brief Tragedy of the Flesh)” are at 8 p.m. April 21 and 3 p.m. April 22 at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University. Visit peakperfs.org.