I very much enjoyed what a friend of mine called the “strange and beautiful” American premiere of Evan Ziporyn’s A House in Bali at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, despite its major miscalculations and flaws.
First, it probably would have been better if they had used the much smaller theater behind the big auditorium so that they didn’t have to amplify and therefore distort, deaden, and fuzzify everything. I heard many complaints about the quality of the sound system as well, so this isn’t just a blanket objection to amplification. Without the surtitles it would often have been impossible to make out what the singers were singing (and those ugly little microphones taped to their faces don’t help the theatrical illusion, either, though I guess you could make a case they function like the masks used for a couple of the characters).
The staging was extremely strange. I was in the front row, way over on the left, about where I had been to see Mark Morris the week before, so I know that normally that seat has a fine view. But for A House in Bali, they built a platform raised about a foot-and-a-half high across the very front of the stage, so that unless the performers were standing on the platform, I could only see their upper quarter (or third, depending on the height of the performer). Even stranger, they built an actual little house behind the raised platform where a lot of the action took place and nothing was visible except for the odd elbow or face. At least someone was back there with a video camera; without the live projection onto a large screen above the stage I wouldn’t have been able to see anything. At the intermission I slipped up to the empty low box on the side of the house, which put me even farther to the left, but at least high enough so the stage was visible.
The house (never a “home”) is crucial, since this is the fact-based story of Colin McPhee (sung by the countertenor Marc Molomot), who felt trapped in the western world and went to Bali in the 1930s, looking for a community he never really found. He spent the rest of his life working on his study of the native gamelan music. He also took up with a native boy (or boys); his wife accompanied him to Bali, but she is not mentioned in his memoir, also called A House in Bali, an elision which this work also follows. There are other westerners there, particularly the homosexual German painter Walter Spies (the tenor Timur Bekbosunov) and American anthropologist Margaret Mead (soprano Anne Harley), who briskly and to comic effect informs everyone of what it is they’re actually doing, in anthropological terms, referring them to her book for deeper understanding of their lives.
Bad amplification and misguided staging were problems inflicted on the work, but there are some inherent problems, too, in the libretto. At several crucial points it's unclear what's happening on stage unless you’ve read the program notes and plot summary: for example, that McPhee wanted his house constructed in the wrong season and an inauspicious location, arrogant miscalculations which lead the villagers to rebel and barricade him inside the house; or that he is rescued from a flash flood by the thirteen-year-old boy Sampih (performed by Nyoman Triyana Usadhi), an event staged in the bathtub of the house, which made me think initially the scene was about introducing the Balinese to indoor plumbing; or that Spies is arrested at the end by the Dutch colonial authorities on charges of homosexuality – you see a man in an elaborate coat (I have a vague memory of golden epaulettes) and a Balinese-style mask steps up to Spies, extends his hands and crosses them at the wrist; Spies follows suit and the man leads him off. Since we have just seen a harbinger of World War II in the person of a similarly dressed Japanese spy disguised as a tourist I thought at first that Spies was just being arrested as an enemy alien, and not on a "morals charge."
I don't think we can get too complacent in tsking over the morals charge, because I suspect that some of the discomfort the audience felt with the show (I heard remarks ranging from “it’s kind of . . . strange” to “I left at intermission”) has to do with the sexual element. It’s never made completely explicit that McPhee’s interest in Sampih is basically sexual (if in fact it is; perhaps I should not assume that he acted on the erotic interest that led him more or less to buy the boy from his parents, who were more than willing to unload him on the foreigner, and then train him as a dancer). Spies’s sexual activities are also only hinted at. He's surrounded by young men, but he's also organizing them into a painters' collective.
Here’s where our culture’s sophisticated acceptance of same-sex liaisons runs against its hysteria about sex with the young. I’m certainly not defending these activities, because I would never defend an abuse of power. There’s clearly an exploitative sexual-tourism angle here. But there’s also a complicated relationship in which McPhee helped this boy and his family in material and artistic ways they appreciated, and there are some comic hints that McPhee was really pretty helpless in dealing with the high-spirited Sampih. But in our grossly sexualized culture, there is a salacious paranoia and anger about a relationship like this that seems to signal a deeper contemporary disturbance. Perhaps this is one of our few acceptable ways to express discomfort with the uncontrollable force of sexuality. Perhaps it’s just our own childlike panic at the realization that taboos about sex with the underaged are not moral laws inherent to all people but more culturally conditioned than we like to believe. Margaret Mead could certainly explain to us the incredible complexity and variability of human relationships. Our judgments are sometimes both accurate and beside the point.
The ambiguities of the work may simply be an effective dramatization of its main subject, which is displacement and searching for a home and the clash between the strange ways of foreigners and our own strange ways. Throughout there is a lot of spectacular Balinese dance (particularly from Kadek Dewi Aryani and Desak Made Suarti Laskmi), which still looks alien to western eyes, despite its influence on contemporary dance (I noted in particular a way of holding the hand out and fluttering the fingers in a tightly controlled way that I think Mark Morris borrowed for Empire Garden, one of the new pieces I had seen his company perform the week before). At the end one of the women dancers thrashes convulsively for a long time, and then Sampih has an odd moment of falling to the ground and sort of undulating, then stopping, then starting again a few times just when you think he’s finished. I heard baffled complaints about those moves, but to me they showed an old tradition dissolving and, in starts and stops, something new evolving.
I’d call the piece flawed but fascinating. I think in a basic way the evening reminded me that for all my kvetching I just really like going to the theater. And the music was wonderful, particularly the gamelan elements. Gamelan is like a spring rain that softens and refreshes everything. The composer conducted the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Dewa Ketut Alit led the Gamelan Salukat. It was a miserably hot and muggy weekend and even in my dressed-down and informal attire I envied the gamelan players their loose red-batiked sarongs, bare chests, and golden hats.