Belgian theater and opera director Ivo van Hove—a familiar name to those who get their Off Broadway fix at BAM and New York Theatre Workshop—has been the artistic director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the Netherlands’s largest rep company, for close to a decade, and it shows in his latest self-assured production, Kinderen van de Zon. For those of you who don’t speak Dutch (and I don’t so I had to catch a performance that included English “surtitles” projected a tad too high above centerstage), the title translates to Children of the Sun, Maxim Gorki’s timeless classic about the intelligentsia’s doomed disconnect—and retreat from—the realities of the common man. (Yup, I am now going to review in English a Russian play done in Dutch. Take that, NYC theater critics back home!)
Interestingly, the company’s home at the Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg, a neo-renaissance fairy-tale castle that seats 1,200 and makes Broadway theaters seem dinky by comparison, provides the perfect setting for a story that revolves around the isolation of the cultured elite. Pavel Protassov, a brilliant scientist, is holed away at his childhood estate with wife Jelena and his invalid sister Lisa. Focused solely on his forever erupting experiments, the oblivious Pavel can’t see the forest for the trees as the artist Dimitri Wagin falls in love with his wife, the vet Boris Tjepoernoi courts his sister, and Boris’s sister Melanie falls for Pavel himself. Clueless to the roundelay occurring right in front of his glasses how could Pavel possibly predict the revolution brewing outside the estate walls? Only the neurotically sensitive Lisa who claims, “I’m ill but my thoughts are healthy” and warns, “All your ideas, feelings, are flowers blooming in a dark forest,” trembles with the unthinkable truth.
And the top-notch ensemble that breathes life into these characters is compelling both for individual artistic talent and team workmanship. Broadway should take note: There isn’t a star in sight—nor one weak link. The natural organic rhythm of a family flows from Jacob Derwig’s disheveled Pavel, to Halina Reijn’s nerdy Lisa, to Hilde van Mieghem’s lonely no-nonsense Jelena and beyond. The superb cast also includes Gijs Scholten van Aschat as the hilariously deadpan Boris and Wim Opbrouck as the lovesick and pompous Dimitri who, upon disclosing to his best friend Pavel that he’s mad about his wife, is met with the laughing response of “Dimitri, I’m sorry, but like all other artists you can’t be taken seriously.” And I haven’t even mentioned Thomas Ryckewaert’s scene-stealing Jegor, an outrageously unapologetic abusive drunk, nor Elsie de Brauw, who seems to be Holland’s answer to Laura Linney, as Melanie.
Added to this intriguing mix is an understated production design that includes sunny yellow lighting and off-white walls on which carefully chosen black-and-white images are projected sparingly, and just often enough to make an impact—much like the well-placed Ramones and Radiohead numbers, their shock effect derived from both their suddenness and discordance. Also, the second-hand slapdash, commie-drab costumes and van Hove’s staging, in which scientific experiments serve as exploding punctuation marks (as in the startling boom that follows the line “The greater the man, the more pettiness surrounds him”), make for a swift-moving—and increasingly smoky—production that keeps the audience as off-balance as the precarious events unfolding onstage. By the time the tour-de-force finale is reached with the artist Dimitri absurdly, obsessively drawing as rock and roll plays, and bullets fly, and footage of corrupt leaders from Hitler to Stalin to Nixon to bin Laden flash across the wall, the entire set is transformed into something wholly unrecognizable. Much like the untouched survivor Lisa, a child of the sun finally freed to be reborn anew.
For more information about Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of Children of the Sun at the Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg, here.