Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cooking the Captain

It's Theater Thursday: I happened upon an opportunity (or rather, being a lazy sod recently, had it thrust upon me) to see the opening night of the Tartu New Theater's Cooking Captain Cook at Genklubi.

And d'you know what, I really enjoyed it.

I won't analyze or review the play in detail, because I don't want to prescribe the meaning that you are meant to derive from it. It was not a bold manifesto, a cultural landmark, or a performance that will live on in legend; rather it was an excellent piece of theater, and is tragically rare these days. In fact, I would maintain that at this point in time, in this country, small, enthusiastic, semi-professional troupes such as Tartu New Theatre provide a far superior experience than even the best of the established institutions.

A few months ago I saw the new version of Richard III playing at Sadamateater, produced by Vanemuine and directed by some presumably impressive Englishman, and it was boring as shit. Except for a rather decent performance of the title character, this play, the highlight of Tartu's theatrical season this winter, was utterly devoid of soul or imagination. It might have been because of Shakespeare, of course - the instance of War of the Roses I saw some years back at Leigo was equally bland: it is as if an entrenched authority can only be tackled via three hours of generically postmodernist "look how clever we are" wankery. The last performance I remember myself truly enjoying - so much in fact that I went back and saw it again on its final night - was a drama about quarterlife angst by a Russian-speaking student theater in Tallinn, and if you've been reading this site for a while, you'll have an idea of how I normally feel about angst.

Theater's initial purpose is to tell a story, but now that we have more efficient media for that, its purpose is to make you feel. Art's worth is properly measured by its effect on an unprepared reader, and from what I've seen of Estonia's theatrical establishment - from Vanemuine to Linnateater to whatever is left of the Russian Drama Theater these days - it has devolved into an incestuous circle jerk, and any new blood it chooses to co-opt is inevitably as pretentious and uninspiring as the old guard. Good theater makes you feel, and it makes you enjoy yourself; if you're not a theater critic by trade, if you go in without preconception and come out feeling unsatisfied, at best thinking that it may have gone above your head, but it sure felt clever - then you were ill-served by your entertainers. The fault lies with them, not you.

Cooking Captain Cook is different by way of its simplicity. There is certainly meaning to be had there, and pleasure, but the performance won't make you work for it. On Tartu's premiere bohemian stage, Tartu's aggressively anti-traditional theater has put on something that is, in a very old-fashioned way, just plain good.

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