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Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Jo Strømgren Kompani - 'The Convent'

by Lea Marshall

August 7, 2006 -- Aurora Nova, St. Stephen's Church, Edinburgh

A rolling thunder crash begins our visit to “The Convent”. A sign from God?  Not in the least: It soon becomes apparent that no sign from above has appeared to these nuns for a long time, and they have grown bitter and cynical as a result, not to mention hungry. How, then, do they navigate an existence stripped not only of meaning, but of all vestiges of creature comforts? Through cruelty, power plays, and dark humor, of course.

A long table on a straw-strewn floor, murky lighting, a few chairs, and the stage is set for three characters awaiting enlightenment, or simply a proper meal. Instead, the women squabble over fragments of bread and keep us guessing with their shifting allegiances. Ulla Marie Broch plays the head nun with grounded, hard-nosed authority, enforcing rote prayers on the other two and eating all but one piece of the bread before their eyes. Guri Glans and Gunhild Aubert Opdal, through telltale glances and use of body language, occasionally appear united against her, but more often Glans’ character submits to whoever appears the strongest by ganging up on the weaker figure.

At first the weak figure appears to be Opdal’s character, who has not yet relinquished hope of a miracle, some sign from above that all their privations have not been in vain. The other two mock this hope, playing relentless practical jokes on her: swapping a full-grown plant for a seed she found and planted moments before in an ecstasy of hope to the swelling strains of Mozart’s Requiem, and then snickering at her amazement; washing dishes in the holy water after she has performed elaborate, overwrought ablutions.

Clever manipulations of sound—whether the ever-evocative Requiem that seems to fill the hollow space of St. Stephen’s or the crackling out of the nuns’ primitive radio before it is abruptly switched off—keep us as unbalanced as Opdal, somewhere between beatitude and rage. In the midst of their squabbles, the three nuns give us moments of divine hilarity, including a dance trio comically echoing the poses found in iconic Christian imagery, such as Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” and their own stunningly rich three-voice rendition of The Requiem’s Lachrymosa.

The fighting, manipulations, and general mayhem reach such a peak of sado-masochistic dysfunction that when Opdal finally snaps and goes berserk and the other two react accordingly, we (and they) realize a line has been crossed and the situation in the convent can no longer be sustained.

These performers, under Jo Strømgren’s direction, project comedy, cruelty, pathos, and puzzlement so explicitly and with such punch through intonation, expression, and physical evocation, that the nonsense language they speak sounds clear as a bell, and you could almost fool yourself into thinking, afterwards, that they were speaking your mother tongue.

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