“Surreal, dreamlike, and delicate” are words that strike fear into the heart of seasoned theatergoers. They usually mean “no plot.”
They’re used by the Barbican Theatre in London on its website to describe “Big and Small,” starring Cate Blanchett. They should have added “laugh-out-loud funny.”
Botho Strauss’s 1978 German play follows Lotte Kotte (Blanchett) through a series of bizarre encounters. Lotte is a good-hearted optimist, a bit dim, and friendly as a puppy. She dresses frumpily and is prone to speaking in exclamation marks. “Amazing!” “Gosh!”
The translation is by Martin Crimp. In Blanchett’s low-pitched Australian accent it sounds goofy and often funny.
In the first scene, Lotte’s in a hotel bar in Morocco. She’s eavesdropping on two men, whom we can’t hear, walking under the window. She tries to relay what they’re saying.
“They’re like total philosophers!” she gushes.
Lotte is alone in Morocco, and lonely. A relationship seems to have gone wrong. She’s still smiling.
“Wow!” she says, as she gloomily pulls off her fake ponytail and false eyelashes at the end of the day.
Later, Lotte tries to meet her estranged husband Paul. She walks into a series of wrong apartments, and has a series of odd encounters. One of the inhabitants lives enclosed in a tiny camping tent. The tent darts hither and thither on the floor like a silent creature. It doesn’t seem to faze Lotte too much, and she tries to make friends with the tent.
In fact, Lotte accepts pretty much everything that happens to her with feelings of friendliness, and this forms the core of the humor and satire. The more absurd the event, the more Lotte tries to normalize it in her desire to make connections with people. Blanchett does it beautifully, and it’s often hilarious.
The program notes hint at a critique of our alienated and fractured society, and at the Cold War fears of 1978. Maybe.
Things turn darker when Lotte eventually finds her husband, who proceeds to beat her. She still wants to go back to him. He kicks her out.
Lotte starts wandering around the streets with a plastic bag, rummaging through rubbish, and talking out loud to God. A man in a parka is friendly to her, and offers her some vitamins. Then he goes away.
By this stage you know how he feels. For all the oddball humor of the early scenes, after a while the play resembles a series of variations on the same themes. Connections are impossible. People are odd. Fear and madness lie just a hair’s breadth away from laughter.
Yes, we know, we know. We got it by the end of Act 1. With a running time of 2 hours 40 minutes, that’s too long to say it over and over.
Blanchett still makes the journey worth the watch, and she invests Lotte with humor and vigor. Sometimes she dances, frantically and energetically. She’s wonderfully gullible, and occasionally pops out an extraordinary snort, which is half-derisory, half-believing. Her descent into madness is “like totally, totally plausible” as she herself would say.
The production is from the Sydney Theatre Company, and director Benedict Andrews does a terrific job. The bleak-funny tone, so hard to pull off, never wavers. He draws cool, perfectly pitched performances from the rest of the Australian ensemble too.
Designer Johannes Schutz pares the aesthetic down to minimalist essentials, setting the action in a big black box, and making it look bold and clean. A white beam represents a hotel bar. A high and narrow white wall with a door makes an arresting entrance to a block of apartments.
That said, the whole show rests on Blanchett’s shoulders. They prove more than solid enough to support it. Rating: ***.
“Big and Small (Gross und Klein)” is at the Barbican Theatre through April 29. Information: http://www.barbican.org.uk or +44-20-7638-8891.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars)Worthless
Today’s Muse highlights: Patrick Cole on Food Bank for New York City gala, Philip Boroff on Met Museum salaries.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and lifestyle section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)