Funny, painfully honest and unclassifiable: Alison Croggon reviews Brian Lipson and Gideon Obarzanek’s Two Jews walk into a Theatre
Some years ago now, the actor and director Brian Lipson embarked on a quixotic project: to collaborate with 25 different artists with a completely open brief for one week each. He spent one of those weeks with Gideon Obarzanek, choreographer, dancer and founding artistic director of the Melbourne company Chunky Move. The result is the funny and painfully honest show, Two Jews walk into a Theatre.
Directed and choreographed by Lucy Guerin, it’s an unclassifiable performance that, like all successful collaborations, reveals something unexpected about these artists. They are both very different performers, two very different men. Lipson is a consummate actor whose skill is in his voice, a man who reveals his truths through masks of character and text. Obarzanek, on the other hand, creates abstractions with his body, which is expressive and graceful, with a disciplined containment.
As we walk in, Lipson and Obarzanek are seated in front of a red curtain on two high stools that are identical to those in the theatre’s foyer. They watch the auditorium fill, their faces expressionless. Like us, they are waiting for something to begin. Once they begin to talk, we realise that they are playing their own fathers, who have arrived early for the performance that we are now watching.
On the floor in front of the two performers is a length of butcher’s paper, on which are written instructions in marker pen which they study at intervals. The show is improvised from a series of instructions, rather than scripted (although I think it’s a lot more scripted than they pretend). They are playing both their fathers and themselves: every now and then one will break the conceit, arguing about how the performance is going, or criticising how the other is playing it. This situates their audience in real time: we are watching the performance being made, right now, in this moment.
Two Jews walks into a Theatre has many hallmarks of Obarzanek and Guerin’s previous work: notably a transparency of conceit and method that unravels human complexity and contradiction. This immediacy permits a sense of lightness and, indeed, delight. It recalls a 2007 short film co-directed by Obarzanek called Dance Like Your Old Man, in which six women talk about their fathers, and thus their own lives, while imitating how they dance. It’s an intriguing conceit which ends up, as with all masks, being paradoxically revealing.
As the title suggests, there’s a lot of comedy here: these two irascible old men are often hilarious, especially when they compare notes on their sons’ disappointing careers in experimental performance. But once we’ve been wound into the performance, leaning forward into their irresistible comedy, their differences begin to open up wounds of rage and trauma, touching on some of the most painful faultlines in global politics.
Both of their families are originally from Eastern Europe. Lipson senior is a liberal British Jew who served in the British Army during World War 2. His father fled a Shtetl that suffered vicious pogroms by Cossacks. The Obarzaneks fled Poland during World War II. Obarzanek senior is a Zionist, who travelled to Israel after the Six Day War and lived for years on a Kibbutz. Their political differences explode into rage: there are audible gasps from the audience as the argument winds up, when Obarzanek senior points an imaginary gun to Lipson senior’s head (“bang! that’s what will happen to you!”) and Lipson senior calls him out as a fascist.
I guess only two Jews could stage an argument like this one. There’s no resolution of their viewpoints: it’s clear that resolution is impossible. Instead, there’s a silence – the show is punctuated by silences – in which we all attempt to digest the common traumas that mark these men, these families, their sons; the lived horrors of anti-Semitism, and their divergent responses.
We discover that this imagined meeting could never actually happen, because Lipson senior is dead. (Obarzanek senior asks him what it’s like to die, and he tells him). They vanish behind the red curtain one by one, and it seems like the end: but then the curtain rises for the first time. The performance is finally beginning.
It concludes with a dance that’s curiously, even mysteriously, moving, freighted with everything that has gone before. The performers seem now to be more themselves than their fathers, but the dance also feels as if it’s taking place in one of the anterooms of death. Without words, these two different bodies finally move in harmony, awkwardness and grace subsumed into the abstraction of their movements, and finally exit into the darkness.
Two Jews walk into a Theatre, devised and performed by Brian Lipson and Gideon Obarzanek, directed and choreographed by Lucy Guerin. Lighting design by Bosco Shaw, music by Oren Ambarchi. Odeon Theatre, Adelaide Festival. Until March 10. Bookings
Auslan interpretation Saturday March 9, 9pm