Park Avenue Armory, Wade Thompson Drill Hall
643 Park Ave. at 67th St.
June 3-9, $40-$95
German composer and artist Heiner Goebbels constructs, deconstructs, and reconstructs the last hundred years of European history in Everything that happened and would happen, making its American premiere at Park Ave. Armory through June 9. Reconfigured for the armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall — it was originally staged in a former railway depot in Manchester — the multimedia, polyphonic spectacle starts as soon as the doors open, so be sure to get there early. The audience sits in rising rafters on the west side of the hall, watching a team of dancers in black (Juan Felipe Amaya Gonzalez, Sandhya Daemgen, Antoine Effroy, Ismeni Espejel, Montserrat Gardó Castillo, Freddy Houndekindo, Tuan Ly, Thanh Nguyễn Duy, John Rowley, Annegret Schalke, Ildikó Tóth, Tyra Wigg) carry seemingly random objects onstage — long tubes, metallic seashells, a gold sun, large cloths that they hang from above — position them carefully, then remove them.
Various people read passages from Patrik Ouředník’s 2001 Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, a tragicomic, stream-of-consciousness look at the twentieth century, exploring war, racism, colonialism, collective memory, liberal democracy, the Holocaust, Barbie dolls, and more. Sentences are occasionally projected on hanging sheets designed with trees, maps, and architectural structures, in addition to unedited footage from Euronews’s No Comment, with no narration or context; the night we attended featured very recent live, often violent images from Syria, Colombia, and other nations. (The video design is by Rene Liebert.) In one corner smoke oozes out of a cave, creating a face. Rocks storm down in an avalanche. The dancers roll column-like plinths across the stage, pedestals without busts; later, one performer climbs on top of one and reads from Ouředník’s book.
The dissonant score, from John Cage’s Europeras 1&2, is played by Camille Émaille on percussion, Gianni Gebbia on saxophone, Cécile Lartigau on ondes Martenot, Nicolas Perrin on guitar and electronics, and Léo Maurel on several specially built, unusual instruments. (The props are from Goebbels’s 2012 production of Europeras 1&2.) Willi Bopp’s stunning sound design has music and words emerging from numerous speakers throughout the hall, as if a choreographed sonic dance. Goebbels is a master of deception; while you’re watching one element, others will sneak up on you, offering surprises galore, evoking life itself — and war, specifically, but without the immediate threat. A long, narrow beam becomes a mobile trench. Black monoliths creep up out of the darkness. At one point I felt as if Birnam Wood was stealthily approaching; another reminded me of George Washington crossing the Delaware (even if it’s not from the last century). The dancers and musicians improvise, furthering the anything-can-happen atmosphere.
Perhaps what’s most invigorating about the 135-minute-plus intermissionless show — Goebbels’s third project at the armory, following Stifter’s Dinge in 2009 and De Materie in 2016 — is that despite the serious topics that are broached, abstract and not, Goebbels leaves it up to us to interpret what we are experiencing; he gives us the building blocks from which we can form our own narrative. “Everything that happened and would happen doesn’t participate in all the attempts to have yet another opinion as to the meaning of what has happened; quite the opposite. Guided by a deep mistrust in the transmission of a one-directional message, I don’t even try,” Goebbels explains in his director’s note. “Everything that happened and would happen seeks to open up a space of images, words, and sounds generous enough to avoid the impression that somebody on stage is trying to tell you what to think. It is a space for imagination and reflection, in which the construction of sense is left for everyone to assemble.”
It can be slow going, and several members of the audience did not make it to the end, which is too bad, because Everything that happened and would happen proves to be a provocative durational exploration of the past, present, and future fusing together, a multimedia barrage on the eyes and ears that demands our attention even as the mind wanders. Even when not much appears to be going on, something is, of course, mimicking life and the choices we make as we go about our day; Goebbels metaphorically hands us the controls and we watch and listen to what we want to, self-curating the presentation. Ouředník writes, “Historians said that historical memory was not part of history and memory was shifted from the historical to the psychological sphere, and this instituted a new mode of memory whereby it was no longer a question of memory of events but memory of memory.” On opening night, at the close of the show, Goebbels himself was helping the ushers steer the audience to the exits on the far side of the stage, forcing everyone to march along a battered landscape and take stock of where we are at this very moment in time, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. It’s a fitting finale to an adventurous evening of intoxicating, memorable theater.