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Theatre in Review: KLII (Under the Radar/Chelsea Factory)

Kaneza Schaal

The performer Kaneza Schaal has something to say, but during much of KLII she seems bent on keeping her thoughts to herself. The brief theatre piece begins with something of an audience traffic jam; arriving at Chelsea Factory, we are guided down several corridors; finally arriving at the theatre, we are given bars of soap and invited to get down on our knees and wash our hands. Why, you wonder? As well you might: It is the first of many mysteries found in an evening devoted to noncommunication.

Because the title of KLII refers to the monstrous Leopold of Belgium, whose systematic rape of the country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo represents colonialism at its horrifying worst, one assumes that the hand-washing is some kind of African ritual. (Among other things, Leopold was known for amputating the hands of his subjects when displeased with the rate of rubber production.) For the first half, Schaal apparently, impersonates Leopold, although you shouldn't expect to learn anything about him here. Decked out in a military uniform and sporting braids so long they might have Pippi Longstocking thinking about getting extensions, she slouches on a throne, waiving a UV fly swatter that occasionally, thanks to the sound design of Camila Ortiz and Ian Askew, crackles like a thunderclap. Eventually, she stands up and dances around, bizarrely, then gnaws, ostentatiously, on a chop of meat. Ultimately, she climbs a staircase and makes an impassioned speech; thanks to the intense use of vocal distortion and an overlay of other sound effects, I couldn't make out a word. Based on the publicity materials, I believe it draws on Mark Twain's 1905 pamphlet, "King Leopold's Soliloquy," but, really, I can't be sure. Indeed, it's difficult to know if Schaal intends to be intelligible. She also plays a record of a speech by -- I'm guessing here -- Patrice Lumumba, but it is in French. At this point, however, KLII is halfway finished and has yet to express a single clear, comprehensible thought.

Soon, Schaal strips off her beard, sits down, and talks directly to us about herself. As she does, the mood in the room changes markedly: A charming presence, she shares details of her family's history, focusing on the grandfather who fled Rwanda and opened a guest house in, I think, Burundi. She also touches on our universal complicity in the sins of a Western society that exploits indigenous populations for everything from chocolate to lithium-ion batteries. But before she gets going, the show is over; there are interesting ideas here -- about capitalism, immigration, and the differing experiences of generations -- that want far more development.

A striking performer, Schaal is, nevertheless, strangely elusive; it doesn't help that Itohan Edoloyi's lighting is not particularly concerned with illuminating her. And, later, when she is speaking about her family, one is distracted by other members of the company, bustling around the stage, setting up electric kettles to make the tea offered to us on the way out of the theatre. KLII is filled with stage business though to what purpose is difficult to divine.

I frankly don't know what to say about a piece that embraces a subject so pregnant with meaning yet remains so utterly opaque. Schaal and her designer/co-director/writer Christopher Myers would do well to take a hard look at what they have created. A quote about KLII found in the Under the Radar program says, "The show invites us into a more meaningful consideration of the lasting social and psychic repercussions of the colonialist project." Actually, it does nothing of the kind. Mostly what it does is bewilder. --David Barbour

(11 January 2023)

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