BRUSSELS — As the biggest performing arts festival in Brussels got underway last weekend, there were few traditional stages in sight. Instead, spectators assembled in colonial-era monuments, a disused railway museum and even the debating chamber of Belgium’s Senate.
There are practical reasons for the flurry of site-specific shows in the monthlong event, called Kunstenfestivaldesarts, said Daniel Blanga Gubbay, one of its directors, during a break between performances. After two years of pandemic upheaval, a lot of playhouses in Brussels were booked with rescheduled shows this year.
The constraints led to a creative lineup, highlighting areas of the city that even frequent visitors don’t necessarily know. In order to see “The Weeping Woods and the Okapi Resistance,” a family-friendly puppet show created by Daniela Ortiz, audience members had to wander into a side alley of the large Cinquantenaire park — and stop in front of the “Monument to the Belgian Pioneers in Congo.”
Unveiled in 1921, this sculpted tribute to the colonization of Congo is deeply uncomfortable to look at today. It features racist imagery and inscriptions that portray Belgians as the saviors of the local Black population. Since Belgium has recently begun to publicly reckon with its brutal history and to remove statues associated with it, “The Weeping Woods and the Okapi Resistance” could hardly be more timely.
Ortiz is from Peru and remains based there. Here, she attempts to evoke Congo’s colonial-era plight through animal puppets manipulated by two performers from behind a curtain. In the story, the central character, an okapi, is captured by gleeful white puppets representing the colonizers.
From a Belgian zoo, the okapi (a close cousin of the giraffe, native to what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo) then yearns for the independence of its native Congo, and conspires with other animals to overthrow the colonial regime. (They succeed, after strangling a human puppet and singing a song.) “The Weeping Woods and the Okapi Resistance” is full of good intentions, and on paper works as a counterpoint to its monumental backdrop in Brussels. Unfortunately, it was far too short and schematic to make for compelling theater: Initially announced as being an hour long, the performance ended up lasting 25 minutes.
There was more to take away from Satoko Ichihara’s unclassifiable “Madama Chrysanthemum,” another work that premiered in a prescient setting, the Museums of the Far East. This complex in the north of Brussels, which includes a Chinese Pavilion and a Japanese Tower, is an Orientalist fantasy commissioned by Leopold II, the king who also oversaw Belgium’s violent rule in Congo.
All the buildings have been shut for nearly a decade, for safety reasons, so “Madama Chrysanthemum” was a rare opportunity to look around. Ichihara, a Japanese writer and director, offered a playful introduction, too. The deadpan Aurélien Estager, one of two actors in “Madama Chrysanthemum,” welcomed the audience outside the Chinese Pavilion and proceeded with a mock tour of the surrounding landmarks.
The tour ended inside the Museum of Japanese Art, one of the closed buildings. There, on a small, empty stage, Estager and Kyoko Takenaka launched into an offbeat performance inspired by the life of Masako, the current empress of Japan (who is also a Harvard-educated former diplomat). In a mix of Japanese and French, the text highlights the pressure Masako faced from the Imperial court, as well as public opinion, to produce a male heir.
The critical light in which the show presents Japan’s royal family made it unperformable in Japan, Icihara said. Its surreal twists presumably wouldn’t help. Throughout, Estager assumes the role of a dog named Emperor, and Takenaka plays its owner, who dreams of being impregnated by an emperor (which one is deliberately unclear) even as she tells Masako’s story.
While “Madama Chrysanthemum” hijacks its Orientalist décor to tell a very contemporary Japanese story, “Se questo è Levi,” a one-man show, channels the solemnity of the upper house of Belgium’s Parliament. It’s a testament to Kunstenfestivaldesarts’ ingenuity that the organizers secured permission to stage an entire show inside the Senate’s debating chamber, with audience members watching from the lion-decorated seats of Belgian senators.
“Se questo è Levi,” created by the Italian company Fanny & Alexander, takes excerpts from interviews given by Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor who wrote about his experience in the camp in “If This Is a Man.” The audience plays the role of the interviewer: A list of questions is provided, and they can be asked in any order. As soon as Andrea Argentieri, who plays Levi, is finished with one answer, anyone can chime in, using the microphone on each senator’s table.
It may be artificial, but it is strangely moving, nonetheless, to address Levi, who died in 1987, so personally. When I asked him, “In your opinion, can you erase the humanity of a man?,” Argentieri, who mimics Levi’s demeanor down to the way he rested his glasses on his forehead, looked at me for a few seconds with unspoken pain before replying.
Would it work in other contexts? It’s debatable, but in the Belgian Senate, Levi’s eloquent thoughts on the Holocaust and its legacy had the gravitas of an official hearing, for posterity. Perhaps they should be heard there more often.
“Se questo è Levi,” like nearly all the other productions at Kunstenfestivaldesarts, was translated into three languages: French and Dutch, the main languages spoken in Belgium, and English. (The Senate is equipped with headsets for simultaneous translation, and in other venues subtitles are used.) That may sound par for the course in Brussels, the multilingual home of the European Union’s main institutions, but the city’s theater scene isn’t quite used to it.
Since the arts are funded separately for Belgium’s linguistic communities (with the exception of a few federal institutions), there is little crossover between French- and Dutch-language playhouses in Brussels, and many don’t provide subtitles. Kunstenfestivaldesarts has attempted to bridge that gap, with partner theaters from both sides.
Over the first weekend, François Chaignaud and Geoffroy Jourdain’s “Tumulus,” a polyphonic work blending dance and music, was performed at the Dutch-language playhouse Kaaitheater, while the French-speaking performance space Les Brigittines played host to a new version of Okwui Okpokwasili’s powerful piece of dance theater “Bronx Gothic,” now performed by Wanjiru Kamuyu.
The range of languages can be somewhat dizzying, as was the case with “Hacer Noche,” a two-hour Spanish show performed in the former railway museum nestled above the North Station. The piece is a quiet and sensitive conversation between the director, Bárbara Bañuelos, and Carles Albert Gasulla, a well-read man who works as a parking attendant. But there is a lot of translated text to absorb while hearing Spanish, and at times I wished the subtitles had slowed down to let their points about class, mental health and precarious work land.
Yet that is a small gripe. In its current form, Kunstenfestivaldesarts shows Brussels at its best: a city of converging cultures, as open to addressing its past as it is to hosting others.
Various venues in Brussels, through May 28.