“Let us think of these things always. Let us speak of them never.” – MCA Stage

The stage lights are centered on 5 empty stools as a voice emerges from the darkness of the theater. The voice describes what the audience can expect from the show, introducing the man behind it as Stephen, as he then names the other performers: Matthew, Selma, and Mislav. He emphasizes that he and Matthew are American while Selma and Mislav are Croatian, and that the audience must remember this fact when the performers take their places.

“We wanted to serve you cake,” he says, “but when I looked into the refrigerator in the theater, the only milk there expired in April 2002, so there’s no milk to go with it.” Steven also tells the audience, “You will be frightened at least one time in the performance, and we will give you a chance to leave if you don’t want to be.” Matthew, Selma and Mislav walk on stage and sit on the long empty stools. What follows is a delicate narration of the series of scenes that the performers are going to enact, spoken in Croatian and English. The narration is both esoteric and seductive, an account of a true moment in history but so absurd that it sounds fantastical.

The performers describe the eccentric Yugoslavian film director Dusan Makavejev, who directed the notorious W.R: Mysteries of the Organism, a critique of revolution that got him exiled from Yugoslavia, and Sweet Movie, an encounter with the sexually heretical and abject Dionysian commune of Viennese Actionist, Otto Muehl. They relate that 20 years ago, the director found himself at a conference at Harvard on Carl Jung’s interpretation of dreams and the unconscious, where he was expected to give a lecture. Makavejev, dressed in a black cape and red lady’s hat, showed a film comprised of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s films he spliced together into one big dream sequence.

Using an old spotlight on wheels, the performers re-enact each of the Bergman scenes in Makavejev’s spliced together film, wheeling the light around to highlight each of their faces. It’s haunting, endless and feels like they are reciting poetry more than describing actual film scenes. If I wasn’t a huge Bergman fan, I’m not sure how I would have taken their words or if I would have “gotten” it.

But this is the charm of Lin Hixson’s and Matthew Goulish’s Every House Has a Door: the minimal props, street clothes and otherwise austere stage design create an understated contrast with the deliberated narration of lofty ideas and richly textured source material. The juxtaposition forges a space for the high and low that magnifies the performers as real people attempting to re-enact the work of other artists in other cultures at the peril of misinterpretation, blunder or total collapse.

What ensues is a deeper look into Makavejev and his work with re-enactments of scenes in Sweet Movie played on laptops for the performers’ eyes only. While the audience is subject to ungodly sounds of complete debauchery to destructive extremes, as in moaning, choking, vomiting, etc., the performers play with artificial flowers as proxies for the body parts, foods and materials being played with and/ or violated in the movie.

reenactment of Sweet Movie by Dusan Makavejev photo by John W. Sisson Jr.

It’s so entertaining, you want to laugh, but as it goes on you feel tortured, exposed, you want the performers to stop playing and you want the sounds of people losing it to fade away, for everything to be put away and be silent. The disturbance comes in waves until an apple-eating climax occurs. This is one part I don’t want to give away, as a description might take away from its visceral power, but the performers get themselves and the floor into a huge mess that is no less shocking as it is cathartic.

Selma Banich brings her dance background with Central European groups, OOUR and Trafik into such compelling interpretations of the Bergman and Makavejev s scenes, serving as a chimera as she becomes everyone and everything she sees, totally absorbed, contorting her limbs and face into exquisitely grotesque shapes and gestures. Her ability to stay composed, especially during the climax of the show in which she is the focal point creates an uncanny image, almost to the effect of tableau-vivant that embodies the confrontational indulgence Makavejev sought to capture in Sweet Movie.

Matthew Goulish’s understated presence balances the performance, as he manages to bring even the most anarchic scenes into calm focus with his narrative voice. The matter of factness of his tone serves as a reminder that the performers are only conduits for the work put forth by Makavejev and Bergman, allowing the audience and perhaps even the performers, a distance from which to observe the aggression and absurdity of all actions with a degree of detachment.

Selma Banich and Matthew Goulish, foreground and Mislav Cavajda and Stephen Fein, background. Photo by John W. Sisson Jr.

This is the way “Let us think of these things always. Let us speak of them never” keeps viewers hooked with scenes and images that suck you in, hold you close and turn you loose. For every bawdy or slapstick gesture there are equal parts silence and reflection

. The performance is as much experimental lecture as it is a play or dance. Another juicy bit on the dance part is a solo by Goulish ¾ of the way through the show with a bundle of artificial flowers. With hints of Buster Keaton in his sad smile and Modern dance inspired repetition of movements, the performer makes poetry out of raw physicality.

Another powerful moment in the epic 80 minute piece is Mislav Cavajda singing a folk song from the last scene of Makavejev’s W.R. The group follows him around with a laptop playing the scene and a microphone, as he wanders around the stage re-enacting the scene as belting the mournful ballad. Though I didn’t understand the meaning of the words, I felt a loneliness that made me remember places I had once loved and will never see again, and I felt intimately connected to Makavejev and his own exile.

Cavajda and Fien, photo by John W. Sisson Jr.

I found out in the post-performance discussion that the song was about a Russian man who fell in love with a Yugoslavian woman whom he couldn’t have. This seems allegorical to Makavejev’s experience of wanting a Yugoslavia he couldn’t have and befits the title of the show. A captain of the Red Army said, “Let us think of these things always. Let us speak of them never” after mass execution in the name of proletariat revolution.

Every House Has A Door brings home the devastation that is the outcome of smashed ideals as a result of unforeseen violence for the very preservation of them. In the same post-performance discussion, director, Lin Hixson said, “You don’t want to lose the ability to be horrified. Makavejev said of Sweet Movie, ‘You taste the world and the world tastes you.’ You can’t take from the world without it taking from you, and this is a way of seeing things so as not to lose your humanity.”

Though she never directly mentioned a parallel between Yugoslavia in Makavejev’s eyes and the United States in her own eyes, there is meaning to these words that speak to the past decade of war at the hands of this country and the lives that have been lost to American ideals. This is a reality the Croatian component of the group has experienced first hand, as their country has suffered at the hands of warring religious and political ideologies that have restricted individual expression and made inter-cultural relationships impossible. This point struck me in the moments when the performers made a brief tableau out of the stages of death from Bergman’s Seventh Seal. As they held one another’s hands with their bodies arching up toward a glowing skeleton, I was reminded of how fate can bind us to our actions or deliver us from them with a force that is as capricious as it is inescapable.

reenactment of scene from Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman photo by John W. Sisson Jr.

Marissa Perel is a Chicago based performance artist, writer, independent curator and healer. Her writing and criticism can also be found on the Art21 Blog,Tarpaulin Sky and Body Blog.