Devised and Performed by Gob Squad
Produced by Gob Squad and Münchner Kammerspiele
Off Broadway, Devised Play
Runs through 3.31.18
NYU Skirball, 566 LaGuardia Place
by Emily Cordes on 3.31.18
Sarah Thom, Sean Patten, and Bastian Trost in War and Peace. Photo by Ian Douglas.
BOTTOM LINE: Spoofing canonical novels and current events, Gob Squad gives a freshly interactive take on War and Peace.
Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel War And Peace inspires a sort of cheeky respect within the Western canon: while its political and interpersonal insights endure, its length and density have become synonymous with literary pretension, and its plot has inspired countless artistic reimaginings (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet, anyone?). Filtering this tradition through its own inclusive, irreverent style, British-German troupe Gob Squad’s War and Peace holds mirror and camera up to Tolstoy’s opus, folding modern viewers into its contextual landscape and giving us fresh access to its message for our world today.
True to the novel’s opening scene and the company’s penchant for shared experience, Gob Squad structures War and Peace as an interactive “literary salon,” addressing the audience throughout and literally incorporating us into the performance. Mingling with the pre-show crowds in NYU Skirball’s vast foyer, Gob Squad members Sean Patten, Sarah Thom, Bastian Trost, and Simon Will each select an audience member to interview, formally introduce, and seat around an onstage table stocked with sweets, champagne, and live-feed cameras. This, they explain, embodies the intent of their show: not to reenact Tolstoy’s tale (“it’s okay if you haven’t read it, but don’t go looking for a synopsis”), but to give us, as outsiders to the novel and its historical moment, a general touch of the ideas it conveys.
Extending the metaphor, the actors place themselves and their salon between two literal and figurative depictions of war, bordering the playing area with an antique Napoleonic-era sword on one end and a copy of the book itself on the other. For the last several decades, they point out, our society has only witnessed armed conflict from afar, and as such we view political upheavals from a comparable vantage point, invested in their implications but largely removed from their direct impact. Now, as in Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s salon, we gather in peaceful diversity to ponder the greater issues before us.
Using War and Peace references both as prompts for their onstage guests and as segues to personal anecdotes, the company humorously reveals the relevance of a work too often viewed as dated or inaccessible. Reflection on the novel’s social-climbing characters, interviewees’ experiences with being not quite “posh or poor,” and Sarah’s digs at her roundly working-class roots all highlight the subtle but omnipresent force of class politics. An audience member’s half-hearted reluctance to slap his interviewer on command elicits big laughs as it illustrates Tolstoy’s point that our actions, once committed and witnessed, cease to be our own. Even lighthearted discussions of the Winter Olympics give us pause when company members touch on the us-versus-them mentality inherent in good-natured sports rivalries and extreme nationalism alike. Despite the weight of these topics, Gob Squad’s gently satirical approach keeps the experience more conversational than confrontational; coupled with such self-aware humor as bad drone-strike jokes and harp-accompanied “Imagine” covers, the group encourages us to laugh at our complexities as we dissect them.
Following the interviews, the company takes a slightly more literal detour as they don outlandish costume pieces for a fashion-runway-inspired parade of War and Peace’s characters, from a pinafore-decked Sonya to a shaggy-wigged warhorse. In a similarly impressionistic fashion, they act out pivotal moments from the novel, such as the contrived peace treaty between France and Russia, or Napoleon’s iconic post-battle stance as an inspiration to the dying. In one notable sequence, the company personifies the character Pierre’s everyman status as each member cites his or her connection with the troubled intellectual (father issues; penchant for distraction), then invites an interviewee to rank this competition (the judge’s ensuing indecision leads him to win this Pierre-off). Live-screened from inside the set’s curtained central tent, projected “backstage” sequences imagine Tolstoy’s existential turmoil and give glimpses into the actors’ own conflicts with the material.
For all its silliness and social critique, War and Peace holds several moments of tender beauty. A collective counting of our pulses, and recorded joint recitation of the novel’s final sentence, evoke our shared humanity. The show’s ending moments have a similar effect: a repetition of the character runway with such cultural icons as Marilyn Monroe and Walt Disney, contemporary figures including Emma González and Vladimir Putin, and the cast’s war-veteran grandparents reminds us of our place in the larger historical narrative. A parting tableau of snowfall, sky, and oak trees furthers this concept, neatly entwining the man-made and natural worlds.
Cleverly deconstructing Tolstoy’s epic, Gob Squad unpacks War and Peace in every sense, from the novel itself to our own views of its titular concepts. By paring daunting literature and intricate social questions down to the barest essentials, the company makes accessible and universal that which can easily overwhelm and divide us. In these monumental and trying times, an audience member’s insight neatly summarizes the show’s message: if the hallmark of significant events is their continued relevance, then our lives today can, to those who care about them, be as impactful as historical epics.
(War and Peace plays at NYU Skirball, 566 LaGuardia Place, through March 31, 2018. The running time is 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission. Performances are March 29-31 at 7:30. Tickets are $35 - $50. For more information visit gobsquad.com and nyuskirball.org.)
War and Peace is devised and performed by Gob Squad. Produced by Gob Squad and Münchner Kammerspiele. Sound Design by Jeff McGrory. Video Design by Miles Chalcraft and Anna Zett. Set Design by Romy Kießling. Costume Design by Ingken Benesch. Lighting Design by Andreas Rehfeld and Chris Umney. Dramaturgy by Johanna Höhmann & Christina Runge. Production Management by Christina Runge.
The cast is Sean Patten, Sarah Thom, Bastian Trost, and Simon Will.