Keep an eye out for future productions of Noémi Schlosser’s wry theater piece "Traktorfabrik." I was lucky enough to catch a staged reading of part of it recently as part of the Emerging Artists Theatre’s New Works Series.
"Traktorfabrik," a three-person play, is set in an underground “connection station” in an abandoned tractor factory on the steppe of a nameless Russia-like country led by a Stalin-like leader known as “the Leader.” (The capital L was audible.) The plot consists of making a bad situation worse: at the beginning, war has been going on for years. The three characters are hungry but hope for a food shipment; at the end, a strange bomb has dropped, one of them is dead, and the other two aren’t sure how long the air they breathe will last.
Cheerful. But it is rather cheerful, for all that – there is a black and biting humor throughout. One character says, “I feel an idiotic sense of security, as if the blankets were made of iron.” Another has devoted his life to “cataloguing tears,” investigating how the cause of tears affects their chemistry. A third scratches everywhere for lice, eats what she finds, and is promptly sick; later another remarks “To be able to speak of anything but food – wouldn’t that be happiness?”
Most of the dialogue sounds like it could be taken from wartime diaries or journalism, and this is, in fact, the case: the characters speak from a wide array of sources from the First World War to the present. Chief among these was Vasily Grossman, whose diaries appeared in English as "A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945." (Grossman, a secular Jew, described the war and the Holocaust with an honesty that meant his work was not published in the Soviet Union until long after his death – some of it, indeed, not until after the death of the Soviet Union.)
This technique gives a particular effect to the piece: the words carry the conviction of historical suffering. We are now used to “verbatim theater,” in which the historical situation is conveyed through real people’s words, but this is different. While the story in which these characters are (barely) living remains mysterious, an abstraction, their dialogue is intensely specific and very moving. The reading I saw was performed by three highly talented actors, Schlosser herself, Scott Volshin and Roman Freud.
Schlosser, the founder of the Belgian-based Salomee Speelt, a mixed media theater collective, has performed with the group in Europe, Israel, Morocco and the United States. Last week, she participated in Asylum Arts: International Jewish Artists Retreat in Garrison, New York. In the fall, “Traktorfabrik” is being produced in Antwerp. Watch this space for news of her return to New York.
Elizabeth Denlinger curates a collection of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Public Library and is at work on a novel about a boarding school in 1955.