Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
The Alchemical Theater began with French actor Jean-RenÃ© Toussaint standing with his back to the audience as he made one of the strangest sounds I’ve heard produced by a human being. Part screeching, part overtone singing reminiscent of Tuvan throat singing, with many additional aspects in its dense structure, the sound had both a primal and highly refined quality to it similar in impact to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This was the product of Toussaint’s Stemwerk technique, his own style of vocal training heavily influenced by his work with the deaf.
Throughout the rest of the 45 minute piece (written and directed by Toussaint) Toussaint used his voice in many other strange and original ways while delivering disjointed dialogue and moving the three props (a chair, a table, and a pink mattress) noisily around the stage. The plot, such as there was, seemed to be autobiographical and dealt with his relationship to his parents and other authority figures. He was constantly interested in the connection between sound and words or language.
Many times during the piece Toussaint would use his voice and body together, the sounds organically and seamlessly translating into body movements, such as a gibberish dialogue between his two hands. At these points The Alchemical Theater was very enjoyable as a piece of abstract art. It could be enjoyed for the pure aesthetic quality of the sound and movement and the meeting of the two without needing any other meaning in order to make sense. However, for the majority of the play, when Toussaint was either speaking or moving around the stage and props, I was alternately flabbergasted and bored. It is clear that Toussaint had some sense of meaning, whether literal or abstract, that he attached to the performance, but I could not discern it.
Perhaps I am hindered by my greater familiarity with music, specifically avant-garde music, than with avant-garde theater. One of the list of collaborators that was listed in Toussaint’s biography was director Robert Wilson, and I kept thinking that The Alchemical Theater would work better as an avant-garde opera, akin to Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach or Meredith Monk’s Atlas. It is clear that Toussaint is interested in sound and this could be utilized to give the piece a place in music-theater where it could be more comprehensible. Whenever I became confused and bored I thought that if there was some music, or at least other interesting sounds which made up the best parts of the performance, it would provide something to focus on while one tried (and perhaps failed) to tease out meaning to his action and dialogue on stage. As is, The Alchemical Theater had some truly stunning moments but they were fleeting, and I left the performance much less excited than I usually am upon seeing a new piece of art.