Friday, January 25, 2013

A GIANT OF SWEDISH DRAMA | Hanging out with Lars Norén

BRUSSELS and NEW YORK CITY |  Eventually the conversation turns to faith. "Do you believe in God?" the Swedish dramatist and director Lars Norén asks me. Tendrils of cigarette smoke rise to meet the short respite that follows. Dark electronic music, firmly rooted in rock grooves, pulses in the background. The atmosphere in the Brussels coffee shop, situated near the busy central market square of the Grand Place -- the second place Norén and I have alighted this October evening, after closing down the first café-is alternately dreamy, ultra-modern and bright-white.

Noren's question isn't an idle one. It emerges after several hours of talk (which began after rehearsals in a black-box studio of the Théâtre National of the Belgian French community) about his work, his life, his native Sweden and his expectations of coming to New York City. Demonstrating a warm sensitivity that runs counter to the usual portrait of him in Sweden as diffident and press-shy, Noren speaks of the autobiographical sources of the cruel realities and social inequalities that permeate his early family plays. He remarks on the Jewish streak that runs through the terra incognita of his Scandinavian sensibility. He elucidates his theatrical preoccupation with the extraordinary spate of high-profile violent crimes perpetrated by Swedish neo-Nazis in his native country. And he acknowledges the uncompromising gravity evinced in the succession of frankly political dramas he's written of late.

Me and Lars Norén: he is the new August Strindberg of the 21st century
"The thought of God doesn't disturb me at all," Norén says firmly, after I pose the same question to him. "Several days ago I was in a plane, and I could see all the beauty of life in the heavens. I saw the world as very fragile and so beautiful. I saw for myself the miracle of what man has created. The meaning of the word 'beauty' is stronger if the world has created itself, without God. I'm more of an existentialist of the Jean-Paul Sartre philosophy: You have to create the meaning with what you are doing every day. I see it in rehearsals: Actors and modern dancers do beautiful things on stage, but at the very moment they've done it, it's gone. You have to give life meaning in every moment-not in the name of God."

Bald, compact, almost Zen-like in his trademark black jeans and black T-shirt, Norén is the theatrical lion whom Swedes most esteem-and the enfant terrible about whom they are most hotly divided. The author of more than 50 plays, the 63-year-old writer-director is reputed to be the August Strindberg of the 20th century (a comparison he detests) and heir to the auteur mantle left behind by Ingmar Bergman in the 21st (if you accept patriarchal lineages).

Norén's language burns with heat, anger, humor, sexual energy and existential angst, and his body of work is a powder keg of hidden complexes, unconscious desires, corrosive frustration and painful confrontations. He is an entrepreneur of psychologically complex and difficult characters who often torment and humiliate each other. Although glimmers of human compassion do appear in his works, there is very little, perhaps no, salvation in his plays War and In Memory of Anna Politkovskaïa, where sex gives the illusion of protection against death.

For the first time, Lars Norén is directing a contemporary piece other than his own. His lazer-like production of The Fever, the OBIE Award-winning play by Wallace Shawn (My Dinner With André, Vanya on 42nd Street, and Grasses of A Thousand Colors) alights at LaMaMa E.T.C.  Running January 24 to February 3rd, 2013, Lars has cast an acclaimed French-Romanian actress Simona Maicanescu as an unnamed upper-middle-class woman from New York who wakes up fevered and frightened in the bug-infested hotel room of some war-torn country and begins probing the very foundations on which both her way of living and her way of thinking are based. This powerful dramatic monologue, written between 1985 and 1990 but more relevant now than ever, examines. Lars' 80-minute French production is an adaptation by Maicanescu and Norén, drawing both from Shawn’s original text and his 2007 rewrite.

Since 2009, Maicanescu (best known for her work with Andrei Serban in Romania, André Wilms, Lukas Hemleb and Jean-François Peyret at Paris’ famed Odéon Theater) has performed the show to critical acclaim in both French and English throughout France and at international festivals in Sweden, Luxemburg, and Romania. The Fever is her first one-woman show.

A tragedian by temperament, Norén has exerted the same influence on the contemporary Swedish drama as Bergman did in the cinema. The height of Norén's fame-the 1997 six-hour epic, Category 3:1, mounted by Dramaten (Royal Dramatic Theater) in collaboration with Riksteatern-epitomized the reemergence of socially and politically committed writing in contemporary Swedish theatre. That decade's most celebrated play, Category 3:1 was a large-scale quilt of stories told by about 30 characters on the down side of life. Consciously switching his focus from the troubles of the cultural elite to the plight of Stockholm's underworld, Norén gave powerful voice to the homeless, drug dealers, an alcoholic, a high-school-teacher-turned-schizophrenic, out-of-work artists and executives, as well as a pimp and prostitute.

The label "Swedish playwright" means nothing to Norén, he says. "I'm a European. I know as much about Paris and Berlin as I know about Stockholm. I read the English newspapers. I read the German newspapers. I think my only home is in my language."

That non-conformist stance, that rebelliousness, is, of course, very Swedish. -- randy gener

Running time: 85 minutes

Written by Wallace Shawn
Adaptation by Simona Maicanescu and Lars Norén
Performed by Simona Maicanescu (Paris)
Directed by Lars Norén
Lighting by Jean Poisson
Costume by Chatoon
Sound by Sophie Buisson
Artistic collaboration: Nelly Bonnafous, Bob Meyer

January 24-27 [Thu-Sun] & January 31-February 3 [Thu-Sun]
Thursday-Saturday: 7:30 pm
Sunday: 2:30 pm

La MaMA, First Floor Theater, 74 East 4th Street, New York

Tickets: $18 / $13 for Students & Seniors
Online tickets and information:
Box Office: 212-475-7710

Presented in association with Le Nouvel Olympia – CDR de Tours Théâtre de l’Espace – Scène Nationale de Besançon / Apocryphe Tendance.  With the support of Athénée -Théâtre Louis Jouvet.

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