'Once and For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen' at Freud Playhouse
Like most teenagers, their blare precedes them. The sound is raucous, almost violent, as though a living room is being invaded by savages and its contents thrown in the air like confetti. These hormonal hoodlums are practically begging an authority figure (preferably one wheeling a vacuum) to step in to impose a little punitive order.
Curiously, when the 13 boisterous adolescents eventually appear in Ontroerend Goed’s “Once and For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen” — a UCLA Live International Theatre Festival offering from Belgium running through Saturday at Freud Playhouse — they hardly seem to be having the time of their lives. In fact, the impression is similar to one of those wildlife programs, in which bear cubs, intent on independently exploring the world, make mischief the moment mama bear leaves them alone to go food-shopping.
If the child is father of the man, as Wordsworth instructed, this charmingly rambunctious hourlong physical theater collage serves as a reminder that the high schooler is the incompletely domesticated animal beneath the human.
Directed by Alexander Devriendt (who collaborated on the text with Joeri Smet and the actors), the production has a visual vibrancy and choreographic verve that make the work, for the most part, compulsively watchable. A line of mismatched chairs invites the performers to do what most pubescents find torturous if not impossible: sit still.
The music that’s streamed in — an inspired eclecticism encompassing the Velvet Underground, Peggy Lee and Léo Delibes, among others — only ramps up the pandemonium. And don’t think it matters in the least to these dervishes if the mood is rave or opera house: Their extremities will find a way to surf the rhythm.
The production is divided into movements interrupted by authoritarian buzzers that freeze the cast in their tracks or prompt them to start nervously cleaning up. Dialogue is incidental. The actors speak mostly in English, not that you’ll always be able to understand them. (The generation gap, more than the ensemble members’ accents, is the chief hurdle.) But don’t let it worry you: “Once and For All” communicates more through tumultuous motion than words, and when the piece dances it becomes eloquent.
Gestures recur with the alacrity of horseplay. One youngster in an orange sweatshirt keeps snapping some kind of rubber-band-like object at his neighbor’s leg. (Ouches are epidemic.) Another mindlessly picks at her clothes, fondling parts of her outfit as though no one else can see her.
The rampant touching (the kids can't keep their hands off one another) isn’t so much sexual as peri-sexual — a kind of groping around the borders of adult eroticism. A girl goes for a ride on a boy’s arms and legs. Two pairs of hands measure a lanky torso. Boredom spurs some flesh and blood pinball action, a ricocheting of hip against hip, backside against stomach.
As objects get thrown and actors fearlessly torpedo themselves, the insouciance grows perilous. Water is splashed into faces like a deadly weapon. The roughhousing quality had me wondering about accident reports, but the rawness adds to the credibility of the overall vision: making adolescent madness theatrical.
The cumbersome English title (it's snazier in Dutch: "Pubers bestaan niet") invokes Peter Handke’s “Offending the Audience,” the Austrian-born playwright’s landmark dramatic assault from the 1960s against conventional audience expectations. “Once and For All” features an early direct-address monologue by one of the female performers, who introduces herself to us as a representative member of her age group. She knows what we think of her (all the usual stupid cliches), but she's too caught up in the urgency of her own topsy-turvy reality to wage an unwinnable war against grown-ups.
That sense of overwhelming immediacy is one of the hallmarks of great theatrical works about the paradox of puberty, when natural urges crash against tyrannical rules. Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening,” the basis for the Steven Sater-Duncan Sheik Tony-winning musical, is perhaps the high-water mark of this category.
In a production greatly enhanced by Sophie De Somere’s colorful costumes and scenography, Jeroen Doise’s captivating lighting and Stijn De Gezelle’s thrilling sound design, Ontroerend Goed finds ways of physicalizing the inner maelstrom of youth. “Once and For All” may experience one or two imaginative logjams where the frenzy exhausts the audience as much as the actors, but the show is unfailingly effective at conveying the circuit-breaking charge of teen spirit.
-- Charles McNulty
"Once and For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen," Freud Playhouse, 245 Charles E. Young Drive E., UCLA, Westwood. Wednesday through Saturday. Ends Saturday. $28 to $42. (310) 825-2101, www.uclalive.org Running time: 1 hour
Photo: Top and bottom: The Belgian group Ontroerend Goed performs "Once and For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen" Credit: Robert Lachman/Los Angeles Times