at the Museum of Contemporary Art
There was a time in my life when I saw an old man in the face of every baby and a little girl in every elderly woman. I was pregnant, and this compulsive perception wasn't pleasant.
Where I saw that glass as half-empty, Belgian writer-director-performer Josse De Pauw sees it as half-full in uBung (Practice). A three-year-old piece developed under the auspices of the Belgian company Victoria and performed here in Chicago for the last time ever, it features actors between the ages of 13 and 15 delivering the dialogue onstage for De Pauw's black-and-white film, projected on a screen behind them. Though the title and a repeated line that practice makes perfect suggest that these children are in training for a venal adulthood, in fact we don't see them as incipient grown-ups but instead see the adults as needy, rather charming kids. It's an intriguing idea, this juxtaposition of child and adult actors in adult situations, but in the end not nearly as "confrontational and beautiful" as De Pauw says it is in a program note.
The characters start out far from charming. In the film's opening scene a man and woman sit in armchairs side by side but staring in opposite directions. A married couple clearly disgruntled with each other and the situation, they're waiting for three people to arrive for a dinner party and overnight stay at their country home, and their guests are late. Only 15 minutes late, but the wife, Rolanda, is furious while her husband, Robert, is fed up with her complaining and needles her by repeating over and over the same comment about a nearby bowl of fruit: "The melon smell starts to cloy after a while, don't you think?" When the guests arrive and begin talking on their cell phones, they're even worse. Ivo is obsessed with making money while his wife, Ria, starts browbeating an underling in her fledgling lingerie business. Only the poet Olivier, who's brought cuttings from his garden, appears good-hearted. Then he gets on the phone with his mother and reveals he's a pathological mama's boy.
In the program, De Pauw describes his adult characters as stereotypical and his child actors as not very emotionally expressive. If these were indeed his choices and not unforeseen accidents, they backfired: he ended up with a mediocre film and onstage performances that are less than compelling. As the house party devolves into drunken despair and/or lechery, then morning-after lethargy and depression, there's no shock or alarm at what lies in store for the children. Instead we feel reassured because the film is structured to make us increasingly sympathetic with its characters: despite their outbursts and occasional cruelties, they're really just vulnerable kids who need our understanding. We begin to see the arid, controlling Rolanda as a passionate neglected child, and the bitchy Ria becomes conciliatory to the point of foolishness. When Olivier acts on his repressed sexual needs, the result is more ludicrous than shameful, and the "adultery" carried out by Ria and Robert is a mere fit of canoodling. By the time the film ends--with the characters on a silent walk through the woods while the children line up onstage wearing smaller versions of the adults' coats, hats, and scarves--we're primed to go "aww," the way we would at a cute baby in a commercial.
uBung relies on our culture's positive image of children, used for selling everything from cereal to life insurance. And though De Pauw said in a 2002 interview that he has "a strong aversion to the romantic idea of the child [as] innocent," there can't be any other interpretation of his child actors, whose high-pitched voices and sketchy imitative gestures inevitably minimize the adults' sins. In fact many of De Pauw's choices seem calculated to reinforce the beauty and innocence of children: while close-ups of Ria and Robert (played by De Pauw himself) dancing together emphasize every blemish and leer, the kids waltz onstage guilelessly.
As a result uBung isn't much of a challenge. Because De Pauw sees his adult characters as children, there can be no tragic flaws. And though you might think of this as a comedy whose aim is forgiveness, he doesn't set the stakes high enough to produce genuine relief at the characters' essential blamelessness.
It bothers me, this equation of children and adults, in part because it's so widespread. Grown-ups should know a lot and be a lot more than teenagers. Yet many people, spurred on by the media, long to be beautiful children. Grown men forget that there's a difference between themselves and girls and boys younger than the age of consent. We already idolize and desire kids, and to use them in this way devalues us all. In fact I found myself wondering how uBung would have come across if the actors onstage had been senior citizens. Now that's a radical concept.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Phile Deprez.