Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 film “Festen” (aka “The Celebration”) was the first film to be given the official approval of the Dogme95 collective of filmmakers (of which there were 254 official designees before the designation stopped being given out in 2005).
The drama of “Festen” is situated in a dinner party held by a wealthy family to celebrate the patriarch’s milestone birthday. At the banquet, the oldest son gives a toast to his father that outs him as a child abuser. The son and his twin sister, as the son describes it, were the victims of their father’s pedophilia. The dinner party’s guests, including some of the father’s friends from elite social clubs, find the revelation incredulous. However, as the dinner goes on, it becomes difficult for the family to uphold its sparkling image.
“Festen” has been subject to a number of stage adaptations, including a brief world tour of an English-language production that spent a little over a month on Broadway in 2006. This week at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, a Polish-language adaptation of the play first staged in Warsaw in 2001, which sticks closely to the original film’s storyline, but for transporting its characters to Poland, will run until this weekend as the last foreign production to be staged at St. Ann’s before it is forced to move down the street.
The Dogme95 manifesto was the brainchild of a group of Danish film directors whose hope it was to promote a filmmaking style that resisted artifice as best it could. Some of the other notable titles from the aesthetic include Lars von Trier’s most bizarre film, “The Idiots,” Harmony Korine’s “Julien Donkey-Boy” and Lone Scherfig’s “Italian for Beginners.”
The aesthetics of Dogme95 were meant to show the more visceral, organic quality of drama film is so good at exploiting. Indeed, the scenes of the film version of “Festen” focus intensely on shocked and uncomfortably contemplative faces. Theater does not extend those possibilities.
Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov’s adaptation, directed by acclaimed theater director Grzegorz Jarzyna (“Macbeth”) brings together a group of top Polish stage and film actors in a staging where the drama does not lie so much in expressions and pent-up emotions let out in raging outbursts.
From the audience, it is impossible to distinguish any movement on the actors’ faces when the first revelation is revealed. Instead, the actors have a variety of ways of releasing their tensions. Borne of disapointment in their family and confusion, the characters have outbursts, sure. But they also speak throughout the play with their bodies: languid bodies resort to unexpected sexual outlets. Bodies run around the expansive and sparsely decorated stage in ways that emulate naivete — both remembered and longed-for.
The remarkably different physical staging of events and emotions is, in fact, a huge success. It would be impossible for drama to play out on faces as Vinterberg’s film exploits so well. Minimally adorned actors (even the most ostentatious sister is not as gaudily dressed as Broadway would have her) and a versatile stage design allow the actors to draw our eyes across the floor of the warehouse and into the uncomfortable circumstances they have been thrown into.
We are complicit; we are not lured into being prying voyeurs getting off of the drama of others. We are invited to empathy and an immensely visceral — and cathartic — experience of trauma that does not leave one pained but instead leaves one with the satisfaction of viewing a successful exorcism.