The Live Arts/Fringe artist roster reveals ambassadors from across the globe: There's Spain-based director Rodrigo Garcia, premier Belgian dance choreographer Jan Fabre and the decidedly American stylings of Zombies Ain't Shit Theatre. But there is perhaps no better representative for the festivals' deeply international talent than Verdensteatret — a company name that translates from Norwegian as "pictures of the world." This time around, Verdensteatret's own ambassador is a 10-foot-tall spider born of the junkyard heap, and their picture of the world appears drawn from a palette of ambient noise, floating silhouettes, the unnerving and the unexplained.
"All of our work stems from a journey," says Lisbeth J. Bodd, who co-founded the mixed-media theater company in 1986. "We choose a foreign destination based on intuition, and bring along as many members of the group as we can afford. The landscape, soundscape and images of our work always derived from our experience abroad."
In the past, the company has sojourned to Cuba, Ukraine and the Faroe Islands. This time, intuition brought them to Vietnam's Mekong Delta, where Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now was set.
"Once we arrived, this clichéd image of Vietnam from [the movie] vanished very quickly," notes Piotr Pajchel, who has been doing visual work for Verdensteatret since 2003. "We were expecting plane wrecks on the riverbanks." The group was surprised to instead find berets, café au lait and the Latin alphabet, even a half-century after the end of France's colonial presence in Vietnam.
"Most of our projects have started like that," adds Bodd. "Through a misunderstanding, an accident."
While the finished Louder is far too detailed and precise to be an accident, it remains abstract enough to make room for many different understandings. Before a backdrop of projected videos filmed along the Mekong, a flock of metal jaws and grinning specters chase birds across the sky, while that giant mechanoid spider eerily monitors the proceedings from the corner.
Adding to the uneasy milieu is a pained, cavernous symphony of automated whirs and scrapes, live instruments made of wood and wire that Verdensteatret found in Vietnam or invented themselves, and a phalanx of Soviet-era megaphones purchased along the Delta. The resultant soundtrack grinds, clanks and trembles like an instrumental Bone Machine.
Although the piece relies heavily upon projectors and stage props, the musical component best defines the production — the piece is, after all, titled Louder.
So what story is this strange audiovisual orchestra telling, exactly? It remains hard to tell — even to the artists themselves.
"When it comes to our work, it's never about the place," says Bodd. Although their unexpected spiritual connection to the natives with whom they wined and dined no doubt helped inform Louder — both the Vietnamese and the Norwegians have a history of being refugees of the water — the group is wary to pigeonhole their work to the concrete or the historical.
"After all, all artistic works are based on unreliable memories and preconceived images," Pajchel postulates.
"And some facts," he adds after a pause. Bodd smiles.
"Very little facts."
Louder, Sept. 11-13, 10 p.m., $25, Festival Bar, 626 N. Fifth St.