Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A woman. A man. A tree. An apple. So begins “Are We Not Drawn Onward to New Era,” a performance piece by the Belgian provocateurs Ontroerend Goed, presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music in association with the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival. In the show’s first minutes, an apple is plucked and eaten, a paradise destroyed. Then the story changes.
For nearly three decades, this collective (its name is a Flemish pun that translates loosely to “feel estate”) has goaded theatergoers, sometimes gently and sometimes (“The Smile Off Your Face,” “A Game of You”) less gently. “Are We Not Drawn,” directed by Alexander Devriendt, falls on the milder end of that spectrum, even as it functions as an allegory about climate destruction.
After the apple is devoured, the tree that held it is torn apart by one of the six actors. Not everything in the show is entirely real; the tree very much is. On opening night on Wednesday at BAM Fisher’s Fishman Space, audience members groaned as he ripped branch after branch. If I’m honest I groaned, too — that poor defenseless sapling — even though there’s currently a Christmas tree in the corner of my apartment slowly turning into tinder. Soon a rainbow of plastic grocery bags, the kind that have recently been outlawed in New York, litters the stage. (OK, fine, I have a few of those in my apartment, too.) Then the smoke begins to billow.
This first half-hour, which ends with the stage strewn with trash and filled with smoke is ugly, deliberately, and just a little unintelligible. There’s sparse dialogue throughout, rendered without supertitles. The non-Belgians in the theater will probably assume that it is Flemish. (I did.) It is not. This is one more show in which the troupe toys with its audience, though here it displays better than usual sportsmanship. To say more would ruin the show’s central surprise. But remember that its title is a palindrome, a type of wordplay in which a word or phrase reads the same backward and forward. So after advancing, the show must then reverse. “Are we not drawn” is a parable of disaster, but run the tape backward and it instead promises repair. Paradise, it suggests, can be regained.
But if the ideas are wobbly, the craftsmanship is astonishingly sturdy. The ensemble works with incredible precision, selling gestures and movements that might otherwise seem bizarre or arbitrary. Nothing here is arbitrary. Each step, each syllable has purpose. And each is set to William Basinski’s “Disintegration Loops,” a composition that is designed to deteriorate.
Maybe it doesn’t pay to think too hard about the show. Unless you’re a fervent believer in carbon capture and probably even then, the odds that humans can remediate the ecological harm they have done seems slim. The show acknowledges this, winkingly, as brute realism gives way to something closer to magic. (There are a few other winks, too. At one point, sparks fly, literally, courtesy of what looks like a mini circular saw.) I’m ultimately not sure if “Are we not drawn” is hopeful or hopeless, a hymn to human endeavor or futility. Certainly it celebrates what a committed group of artists can achieve. Isn’t that enough?
Are We Not Drawn Onward to New Era
Through Sunday at BAM Fisher’s Fishman Space, Brooklyn; bam.org. Running time: 75 minutes.