Lithuanian theatre, like other aspects of the country’s relatively under-exported culture, is so rarely seen in the UK that any chance to grab and examine a piece of it is welcome. And it’s even better when the work itself grabs you back and shakes out a strong response.
This was certainly the case with the production Trans Trans Trance, a powerfully rough, raw and risk-taking female trio presented as part of a two-day, multi-disciplinary arts programme at the London venue Rich Mix, under the umbrella title Vilnius Takes Over. The show’s director, Kamilė Gudmonaitė, is described in publicity material as ‘a new prodigy of Lithuanian theatre’ and it’s plain to see why. The performance she has devised with her excellent, and equally young cast – Dovilė Kundrotaitė, Jovita Jankelaitytė and Adelė Šuminskaitė – was marked by the kind of freshness, urgency and commitment that lodges in the gut and sticks in the mind.
Trans Trans Trance makes a largely triumphant use of several familiar, and perhaps expected tropes of what could be labelled feminist theatre. It’s episodic, but the string of scenes that unfolds for the ninety-odd minutes have an assured, gimlet-eyed drive even when they are a tad indulgent and long. It’s a righteously angry and emotive performance, but at the same time methodically considered, pointed and pertinent, especially when put in a national context. Lithuania is predominantly Catholic, and in many ways sheltered and conservative. It needs a righteous, forceful and sometimes mordantly funny work like this to stir things up and make people think, and to affect the kinds of changes that Gudmonaitė and company want to see happen in their society.
The piece begins with loud, low-lit flashiness as the three cast members gesture and gyrate to a fast beat, heads covered by ski masks. They spew a torrent of facts about the infamous 17th-century Salem witch trials and the unjust treatment accorded to those accused of witchcraft. It’s an energetic, in-your-face kick-off in which the clubby coven of three identify themselves as transgressive and rebellious forces of nature, and as such, potentially dangerous. They name-check some presumably personally-chosen (and mainly deceased) cultural heroines, from Cleopatra and Joan of Arc to more recent icons like Nina Simone, Eva Peron, Anne Frank, Pina Bausch, Marina Abramovic, Virginia Woolf and Meryl Streep. Then we hear a bit of vox pop interviews in which Lithuanian men and women take turns defining what a woman is.
This opening gambit segues into a several comically ironic segments: Kundrotaitė poses as a belching, giggling and brainwashed fashion model, and Jankelaitytė and Šuminskaitė are both pretty in pink as mock-stylish, mirror-image shoppers overdosing on sugar and phony superficiality until they’re retching into their designer tote bags. Kundrotaitė returns, this time in black underwear, and her co-stars draw dotted lines and ‘cut away’ her bare flesh by filling it in with black markers. All three speak of cosmetic surgery but take their words to absurd extremes, including head removal.
Events take weirder and sadder turns. In Šuminskaitė’s ensuing solo, with her near-naked body oiled and tongue blackened, she transforms into an upright but still lizard-like, grotesque beast – wild, restless and neurotic. Kundrotaitė rematerialises, in baggy clothes, visored cap and boxing gloves, as a self-declared ‘nasty woman’ on a mission of political protest. Jankelaitytė, also in boxing gloves, tries hard to light a cigarette to no avail until she tears off what’s encasing her hands and throws the impediments away.
All three strip off in shadowy light and recite together mysterious, sacred-seeming words before singing the folk lullaby ‘Go To Sleep You Little Baby.’ The song functions as a cue for Šuminskaitė to speak about an abortion. This, in turn, leads to the show’s final segments, which mainly relate to transgender issues. Šuminskaitė again, in underwear to which a floppy phallus has been sewn, executes a bandy-limbed dance derived from a two-spirited berdache figure in Native American culture. This is followed by some sobering factual information about Lithuania’s trans population, plus more vox pop commentary. Next Jankelaitytė, androgynously clad, confesses a deep, painful attraction to an absent person, only to be humiliated by a bigot, embodied with uncomfortable doggedness by Šuminskaitė, with morally repugnant ranting apparently derived from actual websites.
In the penultimate section we listen to the poignant, compelling voice-over of a trans person while observing the shadowy elephant – a performer in a suit topped by a striking full animal mask – now in the room. The finale, meanwhile, is an extended burst of trippy, anarchic but also defiantly celebratory dancing in a mix of stark silhouette and dry ice. It’s a fitting conclusion to a loaded show that bluntly yet artfully layers actions, images and text. Trans Trans Trans plainly matters a great deal to those who shaped and inhabit it. Their gutsy intensity and collective integrity go a long way towards making it matter to us too.
Images: Deivaras Photography