Love: A Tragic Etude is powerful, visceral theater wrapped up in fancy but minimalist avant-guarde direction. Graphic, unflinching, and led by the magnificent Melinda Helfrich, this show is not to be missed.
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Love was a battlefield long before they sung it that way. Love: A Tragic Etude is expressionist theater that merges the violence of Sarah Kane with the dystopian tragedy of Brecht. The individual pieces don’t always make sense, but they’re viscerally resonant and poetically raw. Taken together, the effect is an overwhelming study (set to live piano accompaniment, for those who don’t know what an etude is) in dismantling our values, punishing our heroes, and torturing our innocence. Love is not just blind—she is unflinching, too.
Written and directed by Juan Souki without a moment of respite or pity for the audience, love is dismantled at every turn. Even the gentle caresses of our two lovers, Fernando (Gil Bar-Sela) and Arena (Melinda Helfrich), are false: Fernando has already left the fictitious Red City for military service and Arena is reading his letter. Their unity is a mirage of Souki’s magnificent staging; a side effect of the short silent film we see that cites their celebration “five years of union.” Over the next ninety minutes, Souki carves time and space, using jagged physical techniques and delicately synchronized movement to make a brutally beautiful play.
The plot quickly becomes secondary to the incidents, but it’s enough to say that Fernando rebels against the ugly sadism of his military, only to be captured and tortured, a martyr for innocence and love. Arena is the unfortunate effigy of his suffering: when Fernando is first captured, the commander tells him that they’ve prepared a show. Two gas-mask-wearing soldiers bring a half-naked Arena onstage, slowly wrap her in cellophane, and then systematically rape her, changing her position with each ring of a triangle. It is a dehumanizing act: enough to make even one of the soldiers vomit with disgust. Her unborn child miscarries, and afterward, as she lies on a table, broken and discarded, one soldier, suddenly finding his humanity, sings a mournful aria for her.
The testament to the director’s arresting vision comes a few short scenes later: Arena stands with a basket onstage, when the four soldiers cross the fourth wall. Suddenly, they are the actors again—Jeremy Bobb, Aryeh Lappin, Kate Loconti, and K. K. Moggie—and they are heckling not Arena, but the actress herself. The rape was scripted—violent, but choreographed—but this, this is personal, and Souki has made the audience implicit in an abuse that blurs reality. Some of the other moments in Love come across as stunts (like a choreographed boy-band dance that springs out of a rote military march), but not this—this hurts. (And Helfrich, a fantastic actor, shows it.)
Love is an uncompromisingly dark vision of a doomed society, and Juan Souki has done a magnificent job at capturing our attention with a remarkably minimal set (just one heavy table, often slammed against the ground for emphasis, and some rotating wall panels). I’d be terrified to see what Souki could do with more resources: he does so much already with so little.
Kraine Theater (85 East 4th Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00
Performances: Monday, Wednesday, Friday @ 8:00; Saturday @ 3:00