Wunderbar play-acting from Wunderbaum

Wunderbaum Looking for Paul (c) Steven A. Gunther 06

Looking for Paul: Inez van Dam vs. The Buttplug Gnome


World Stage, Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto

April 27 to 30, 2016

The buttplug in the title of this show is not entirely a red herring, but enough about that for now.

First, about Paul. He is Paul McCarthy, a 70-year-old Los Angeles sculptor and performance artist. His work often bears an implicit critique of American consumerist society.Quite a few of his works can be found in public spaces in Europe. The “buttplug gnome” is the name given by Rotterdammers to “Santa Claus,” a sculpture McCarthy made in 2001. For some years, it has stood prominently in the Eendrachtsplein square in Rotterdam. The dwarf-like Santa bears a Christmas tree in his right hand, shaped like a – there is no mistaking it – buttplug.

Needless to say, some citizens take offence at this work, innocent though it first appears. It’s a particular issue for Inez van Dam, who lives in a sunny apartment above the bookstore she owns on the Eendrachtsplein, where the sight of the buttplug gnome is absolutely unavoidable.

Wunderbaum, the Dutch Flemish company from the Netherlands, is as cunning as Paul McCarthy. The show opens when Californian Daniel Frankl introduces himself – awkwardly – telling us how he got involved with Wunderbaum when the collective was awarded a $20,000 residency in Los Angeles to create a theatrical piece. He is the middle man between the Netherlanders and Paul McCarthy, who is to be the subject of their production.

Frankl calls to the stage Inez van Dam, who is sitting in the audience. She bears a sheaf of notes that she reads from, rambling on about herself as images appear on the screen above her, not always in synch with her talk. The message: Inez hates the big black gnome with its big black anal dildo, it’s inappropriate, it spoils her view and she resents the American intrusion into her city’s culture.

Beside her, five white chairs with microphone stands foretell a dreadful evening. What transpires, after three more actors come on stage, is a reading of emails comprising an account of what happens after the troupe goes to LA, with Inez. Threaded through this discussion is a mind-numbing debate on the merits and demerits of the arts funding model in the US and in Holland.

Walter, Matijs and Marleen, along with Daniel and Inez, take their seats, each bearing a sheaf of printouts. At first the email messages, along the lines of Daniel’s “I’m extremely excited about this project. European theatre is edgier and richer because you have the money to spend on the process,” make a tedious exercise in revealing the creative process. Then things heat up: Marleen bursts out with a message to Inez:  “Are you willing to show your cunt on stage?” Inez has professed an abhorrence of even being on a public stage.

Slowly, from gestures and looks that pass between the email correspondents, drama begins to erupt. Marleen is the most vociferous: she wants to do a real show, maybe Streetcar Named Desire. Walter gets a wild notion of involving Lady Gaga. Daniel shuts him down, warning that Los Angelinos are fed up with celebrity-stalking. They get laughs from the audience as things grow more intriguing, Marleen flirting online with Daniel; others suggesting a meet in the hotel pool. Drinking becomes a running gag. Inez looks for a way out of the project.

Just when it appears that no show will materialize, stagehands are called to remove the chairs and mikes and the cast exits stage left. The crude bunk and bed, an open toilet and the child’s wading pool that have been lying in darkness throughout the email reading are now highlighted. The time-lapse video of  an LA intersection that has been running on the screen is now projected on the back wall of the stage. Women with cameras are summoned, to create live video of the action.

Matijs enters in a long t-shirt, wearing big ears on his concealed face, a ratty blond wig and huge puffy hands. He makes for the toilet and pulls down his underwear. Walter comes in with a wooden sword in a pirate outfit, yelling “room service” over and over again, as he too de-pants. Marleen is in a skimpy black dress and high heels. Daniel is a chef wheeling a cart with bottles of ketchup, mayonnaise, chocolate syrup and a bowl of spaghetti. Inez is collared and chained to a post.

What follows, in this makeshift hotel setting, is a piece of performance art that resembles the sort of thing Paul McCarthy might do. You know you’re not in the real Hollywood, though, because the men are frontally nude and the women remain dressed. It’s a food fight writ large as the stage and the actors are covered in fake feces, ketchup, whipcream, spaghetti  and liquid chocolate. The Wunderbaum collective – Walter Bart, Yannick Noomen, Matijs Jansen, Maartje Remmers and Marleen Scholten – has pulled off a wonder.  And yes, there are actions with dill pickles that bring to mind that infamous buttplug.

Photo: Santa Claus and Looking for Paul: Inez van Dam vs. The Buttplug Gnome.

Credit for Wunderbaum photo: Steven A. Gunther

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