One of the most astonishing theatrical productions this summer in NYC occurred at St. Ann’s Warehouse out in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, which hosted the Great Small Works 9th International Toy Theater Festival May 30th through June 13th. (Up next at St. Ann’s is the fantastical sounding Labapalooza! – a festival of avant-garde, works-in-progress puppetry June 23rd through June 27th.)
But to call “Kamp” from the Rotterdam-based troupe Hotel Modern a theater piece doesn’t even come close to describing their re-imagining of Auschwitz as a breathtaking scale model peopled by thousands of three-inch tall miniatures, looking like a European version of Mexico’s Day of the Dead figurines. Taking up the entire stage, the intricate and precise installation would fit right at home at the Whitney Biennial (in fact, there’s a temporary toy theater museum also set up at St. Ann’s) and includes not only rows of barracks and a railroad track but also the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” emblazoned on a gateway.
Through this setting three company members, two women and a man dressed in drab grey outfits, manipulate the tiny, nameless and mute characters and project the results in real time upon a large back screen via equally miniature cameras. What better way to get at the essence of one of history’s most surreal events than by presenting the Holocaust in such a surreal fashion?
In this way “Kamp” runs closer to cinema than to theater, most notably the work of David Lynch. Hotel Modern has captured an almost Eraserhead vibe, in which everyday mundane experiences like performing carpentry work and drinking soup become horrific nightmares. It’s a full-fledged visceral experience designed to make us physically uncomfortable even as we’re too hypnotized to look away. There’s no air conditioning in St. Ann’s auditorium space so we sweat in the summer heat. The enormity of the predicament of the figurines that become larger than life onscreen is enhanced through sound design sometimes amplified to hurt our ears. Since “Kamp” has no dialogue nothing is lost in translation. Howling winds and roaring cattle cars speak louder than words.
And those tiny sculptures truly take on personal lives of their own as a series of haunted house-like tableaus play out underneath a cinematographic lighting design that even casts their shadows upon the dollhouse size walls. As a result the black and white imagery projected evokes those old World War II documentaries often shot by great Hollywood hands. A figurine wearing a gas mask dumps poison from canisters through a hole, his rhythmic huffing nearly melodious. An over-the-shoulder shot of a guard reveals a prisoner sweeping a floor with all his weak might. The gruesome thudding sound of a victim being beaten to death by a Nazi’s billy club actually made the woman next to me startle with every thump. The artists pass miniature-filled trays like cake pans to the beat of marching music, foreshadowing the ovens to come.
By the time the camp is lit up at sunset and an eerie stillness descends we’ve reached only the calm before the storm. The camera pans across pained faces of prisoners eating hungrily followed by a close-up on barbed wire that segues into a scene of electrocution upon it. The darkness of the gas chambers emerges into color images of clothing, hair, a menorah and various other objects in haphazard piles. From drunken Nazis in celebration to a moving overhead shot of a mountain of corpses that resembles a sculpture sprung from the mind of Brueghel, “Kamp” deftly shows the constant, sickening bipolar state of barracks life – and death as one lone figurine finally struggles and stumbles out of the heartbreaking carnage.