by Minji Kim
As much as I enjoyed my European Modernism art history class last year, I never thought I’d be able to see it come to life on stage. And yet it did. Colorful horses, the ridiculously worded Dada manifesto and photomontages flashed before my eyes earlier this week at the American Repertory Theater where I saw Jim and Ruth Bauer’s The Blue Flower. I was delighted that the musical-play, which runs until January 8 at the Loeb Drama Center, does not strive to be an esoteric piece of Dadaist performance art (though that would have been fascinating to watch as well), but rather integrates the key artistic and political elements of the World War I era into an original, understandable plot.
At once poignant and hilarious, fantastical and true to history, The Blue Flower sets the angst of Germany and France during the 1910s against the backdrop of Dadaism. Using the tragic story of protagonist Max Baumann’s (a reference to artist Max Beckmann) unrequited love and lost friendships as its backbone, The Blue Flower encapsulates the emotional complexity that gripped Europe during this turbulent time.
The central plot of Max’s life is pierced from all directions with art allusions, tongue-in-cheek political humor and ironic gibberish commentary. The four central characters make reference to highly famous historical figures: Maria (Marie Curie), Franz (Franz Marc), Max (Max Beckmann), and Hanna (Hannah Höch). However, because these are not exact biographies, the characters assume the flexibility necessary for poetic drama and creative caricature. Their names just skewed enough to be recognizable but not exact, the characters launch themselves into a flurry of love triangles and war. A "Fantasy Man" narrates their biographies as reminiscences of a time long gone.
This straddling of historical truth and fantasy justifies the back-and-forth nature of the plot as well as the absurdity of the characters’ made-up language. Not to mention, such Dada-ist undertones (or overtones) structure the fictional, artistic elements of The Blue Flower. Franz of the musical dies in combat, just as the artist Franz Marc died in the war. When Max first encounters Hanna, it is in a cabaret theater, and Hanna dances in a paper-and-cardboard outfit nearly identical to that of Hugo Ball.
Other references to the Dadaist movement, most prominently the authentic archival German silent film clips by Man Ray and Hans Richter, accompany the narration. Small collages hanging on the worn walls are reminiscent of the feminist photomontages for which Höch garnered much recognition.
The Blue Flower is a musical meditation that effortlessly oscillates between two worlds, two time periods and two genres of theater. It is neither a tragedy that drips saccharine tears, nor is it a comedy escalated to hilarious nonsense. With knowing gestures to Dadaism and the nuances of the era, it manages to include those allusions for the entertainment of those who recognize them, but the storyline is also wonderfully legible for those who do not. Though its characters are distinctly Dada, striving to highlight the follies and senselessness of modern life, The Blue Flower uses those moments of light-hearted absurdity to craft meaning out of the chaos.
Photos courtey American Repertory Theater.