Channeling both Tolstoy and the best cocktail conversation ever, European theater renegades Gob Squad present War and Peace, a mashup of song, talk, and fashion that makes for a gleeful, heady experience. The show takes place Friday and Saturday, April 6 and 7, at 8 pm, in The Moore Theater of the Hopkins Center for the Arts.
A sell-out hit at New York’s Under the Radar Festival, this UK- and Germany-based collective uses Tolstoy’s epic as a launch pad for a gleeful, audience-interactive experience. Reenacting the high-society party that opens War and Peace, the cast selects audience members to join them onstage for a high-octane mashup of War and Peace quotes, improv, live video, even a fashion show—all to explore Tolstoy’s enduring question: Is it possible to be moral in a deeply flawed world?
“Gob Squad…teases out ideas, characters and situations from Tolstoy’s mammoth, 1869 novel about the Napoleonic Wars and the 1812 French invasion of Russia, and makes them their own,” writes The Herald Sun, Melbourne. “The performers are all charming, quirky, funny and skilful as they weave fiction and fact, improvisation and live video around Tolstoy’s grand landscape of affluence and wartime horrors. The performance is nonlinear, shambolic and irreverent, shifting from conversational dialogue at the salon table, to extracts of Tolstoy’s novel read aloud from the page, to oddball arguments between actors playing characters such as Napoleon and Tsar Alexander.”
A tight-knit group of seven core members, Gob Squad makes shows characterized that juxtapose the exalted and the mundane, theatrical spectacle and the banality of everyday life. Quoting a range of cultural sources, Gob Squad playfully looks at the construction of contemporary identity with humor that entertains and provokes. Rather than passively consuming, Gob Squad audiences often take active roles that create special relationships to the artworks. Writes The Guardian (UK), “Gob Squad skip[s] fearlessly along the thin line between fiction and reality, film and live action, like reckless tightrope walkers.”
Gob Squad’s War and Peace begins as the book does: in a fashionable 18th-century salon. A few audience members are invited to sit at tables in front of the stage and become part of the show; the cast wear cardboard impressions of Empire dresses that strap on like aprons and can be discarded for other rudimentary costumes. Incorporating video and improvisation, the company works from a scripted sequence of events but doesn’t assign roles, so a performer might change hats to become Napoleon in one sequence, the novel’s existential hero Pierre in another and Czar Alexander in the next. References to great literature and grand historical events are handily juxtaposed with modern pop culture and news headlines as the cast leads the audience on a high-speed, insightful journey through the 1,200-page text. Writes the Sydney Morning Herald, “No subject seems too big for Gob Squad. There may only be seven of them in their performance collective, but give them some space and a shoestring budget and they will take on the world.”
Founded in 1994, while its members were still at Nottingham Trent and Giessen universities, Gob Squad works collaboratively on the concept, direction and performance of its work. Other artists, performers and technicians are invited to collaborate on particular projects. The company makes performances and videos which search for beauty in the everyday, and look for words of wisdom from a passing stranger. “Gob Squad conjure[s] the epic through the participation of ordinary people… use the whole world (or as much of it as they can find) as their canvas, and everyone in it as a potential participant” (The Guardian).
Each Gob Squad project takes a different form, and often go after a large subject. Recent projects include Western Society, a portrait of civilization in the 21st century through the lens of a single family; Dancing About, a work of and about dance that the company says is part nightclub, part ritual worship, part expressive dance therapy; and The Conversationalist, based on David Foster Wallace’s massive novel Infinite Jest and consisting of a 24-hour journey through some of Berlin’s forgotten buildings and sights. Its work is regularly shown throughout Europe, and the company has toured to all the continents apart from Antarctica.
The Hop performances by Gob Squad are funded in part by the Robert Grinnell Fund for the Hopkins Center.
For over 20 years, Gob Squad has been finding new ways to combine media and performance, producing stage shows, video installations, radio plays, interactive live films and urban interventions. The use of audio and video technology plays a prominent role in the company’s work, with the result that alienated forms of intimacy have become a central theme. Core members are Johanna Freiburg, Sean Patten, Sharon Smith, Berit Stumpf, Sarah Thom, Bastian Trost and Simon Will.
Gob Squad’s international reputation has grown steadily since coming to prominence at documenta X in 1997. Its productions have been shown on all the continents apart from Antarctica where projects such as Super Night Shot (2003), Gob Squad’s Kitchen (2007, winner of New York’s Drama Desk Award), Saving the World (2008, winner of the Goethe Preis at the Impulse Festival), Before Your Very Eyes (2011, selected for Germany’s Theatertreffen) and Western Society (2013) have received wide acclaim. Berlin has been the group’s creative home since 1999.
Tolstoy’s War and Peace
First published in its entirety in 1869, War and Peace is regarded as a central work of world literature and one of the finest literary achievements of Leo Tolstoy, who was born to the Russian aristocracy but came to reject not only its materialism and pleasure-seeking but to oppose private property in general (although he lived until death at Yasnaya Polyana, his luxurious family estate 150 miles south of Moscow). The novel spans 1805 to 1820, chronicling the history of the French invasion of Russia and the impact of the Napoleonic era on Czarist society through the stories of five Russian aristocratic families. In addition to those five fictional families, the novel depicts or refers to some 160 real people from that period. Central character Count Pyotr Kirillovich (Pierre) Bezukhov acts as a voice for Tolstoy’s own beliefs or struggles. The socially awkward illegitimate son of Count Kirill Vladimirovich Bezukhov, Pierre has been educated abroad and returns to Russia as a misfit, but his unexpected inheritance of his father’s fortune makes him socially desirable.