Awkward and Unabashed

On stage at the Brut Festival opening at the Konzerthaus, the mysterious collective Inferno singes the audience in three parts

Awkward and Unabashed

The box office at the Konzerthaus had become a human holding-pen on the night of 2 March. Under the yellow glow of “Brut Kasse, Besetzt!,” Viennese hipsters stood sweating in their over-sized scarves and Poindexter glasses, waiting for admission. Standing on a chair, a member of the Inferno Collective cheerfully inveigled the crowd: “Hallo! Can you hear me?! First you must put on your stickers!”

A voice surfaced at my left: “This is not Vienna-style – it’s so informal.” His sleek companion replied, “It’s like we’re in a London Underground car.” Thus began our evening-in-three-parts, with Inferno Collective, a mysterious group of artists hailing from cities and towns as diverse as Minsk, Prague, Wroclaw, and Vienna. They served-up a selection of loosely-scripted theatre that incorporated audience and performers in an atmosphere of barely-contained mayhem. The self-titled event marked the opening night of Imagetanz, a festival of choreography and performance produced by Brut Wien. Through both the festival and their regular season programming, Brut Wien develops and co-produces new works of theatre in cooperation with independent Austrian and international artists.

Interactive foreplay

To start, the restless ticket-holders were assigned roles that included “late audience”, “sound”, and “bar”. Drafted to the “bar” group, I and several others gamely cut lemons and poured vodka for those privileged as “audience”. One couldn’t help but wonder if the whole thing was a scam that would end in the disappointment of anti-performance… “Well isn’t this fun!?” piped up one fellow with pink fingernails and an attitude, looking up from the glittering vodka shots, whisking his tray into the theatre.

And suddenly the game was on… Part Two brought the now “warmed-up” – or more accurately, exasperated and confused – audience firmly into the strange twilight of performance art: Two female collective members traded quips and teased the crowd, while delivering a solid 45-minutes of awkward, off-key song and dance. Teetering on the edge of disaster, they always seemed about to forget their lines, lose their balance, or maybe just wander off in a catatonic daze.

Lyrics ranged from “I am a Campbell’s soup can” to “O human loneliness… and the inevitability of death!” Every punch line was an anti-climax. Feeling vaguely insulted and ready to write off the evening as amateur absurdist foolishness, this viewer finally came around to the appeal of the performers’ attitudes: They played against each other like a seasoned improv troupe and gave themselves over to every gag, no matter how inane or undignified.

They charged headlong into a rap on the subject “Christmas is coming” that was even more banal than the act of shopping. They picked at spike tape on the floor. They wore false moustaches with panache. Once, a small dog ran across the stage and never returned. This gentle mockery of both audience and performer became an homage to the impulse to find meaning in random events. Refusing to reach for mastery of any kind, they still offered a rich tableau where meaning simply was: Because that is what the human mind craves, and we must satisfy that craving.

The naked truth

With semi-nudity and full-frontal attitude, Part Three was more brashly seductive. It featured four performers wearing glow-in-the-dark body paint, spandex shorts and little else. Looking like refugees from a lip-sync contest circa 1980, they hammed it up while interpolating “fix me!” into Madonna lyrics. Still on full throttle, they played the next sketch for sheer weirdness. With hysterical weeping and deadpan asides, two women narrated a story about a “broken beamer” and an erotic-dancing fix-it man, before segueing into a happy round of  “Fang das Licht” as rainbows appeared on the wall. The sketch closed with a painfully clumsy but carefully choreographed ballet, to a chorus of “When will I be famous?” When indeed.

While lacking the earlier duo’s clever verbal bi-play, this fabulous foursome flirted heavily with audience expectations. Gender roles were tested: our pink-finger-nailed waiter from the pre-show reappeared as the sexually ambiguous Vogueing Beamer Man. The women went topless for a bit, but their aggressive hula dancing was closer to head-banging than striptease.  They took firm possession of our gaze and redefined once more the role of the watcher and the watched.

Taken as a whole, the evening was a performance art primer, delightfully unpredictable, opening gaps in the fabric where anything might happen. And whether irritated or intrigued, the audience was always part of the show.

For information on the groups performing at Brut Wien events visit:

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