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A performance of staggering proportions

Rule: book adaptations will never outdo the original. But Matthias Lilienthal's 24-hour, multiple location rendition of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is 50 bucks were well spent.

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Photo by Astrid Warberg

Book adaptations come with a golden rule: “It is impossible for thee to be better than the original.” Film may be the medium that comes to mind when literary refittings, but the theatre stage has had its share as well.

And what if the book in question is an ultra-complex, wildly experimental, 200+ character strong postmodern revelry spread over 1,079 pages as well as 388 footnotes (several with footnotes of their own!)? Not only that, but one that is consistently ranked amongst the most significant literary achievements of the 20th century and in less than two decades since its publication has accrued a cult following that extends to its author and verges on religious fanaticism? The cojones required for this daring must be imposing indeed.

The novel is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and the cojones are Matthias Lilienthal’s, whose 24-hour theatre adaptation of Wallace’s opus takes its audience to eight different locations in West Berlin where a dozen different performance groups freely explore and re-interpret passages, characters and themes from the novel. All of the aforementioned notwithstanding, even the most hardcore DFW devotee couldn’t deny being tantalised by an endeavour of this scale.

And in terms of scale, it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Considering the logistical nightmare that must involve transporting two groups of 75 people over distances of up to 20km at a time, walking them through immense complexes and multi-storeyed office buildings, having an army of actors at the ready to perform highly elaborate, multimedia plays on a strict time schedule, synchronising countless recordings to either dub or narrate the action via portable headsets live, and who knows what else ‘behind the scenes’ – in this regard, it’s an absolute triumph. There was not one glitch or delay, two double-decker BVG buses – ‘Metro Boston’ buses, sorry – acted as our personal chauffeurs/cloakrooms for the entire period, we were given time for meals, each performance ran like clockwork, and they even threw in a live guided tour of the modernist abominations we passed on the road to entertain us during the bus rides.

As an adaptation of Infinite Jest, it isn’t quite as successful. The actors are for the most part excellent and the amount of text they each have to memorise is staggering. Still, too many of the performances involve delivering a disparate barrage of citations from all over the novel – in one instance without apparent relevance beyond tickling the geekier fans, or perhaps out of mordant self-irony even from Wallace’s stand-alone essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again – so that their meaning is largely lost to anyone that hasn’t read the entire novel, whereas for those that have, it often feels too much like playing a game of identifying the passages without the focus necessary for drawing much from them.

The entire play’s two main flaws, however, are its treatment of language and of the novel’s humour. Regarding the former, the fact that except for three of the performances, the rest are entirely in German, is a matter of personal taste and one can be more or less of a purist about it. Even so, a number of the play’s language tactics create unnecessary distance between the audience and the material, often sapping its strength. The novel’s chapter in which J.O. Incandenza’s father delivers a monologue to his son about personal success and fulfilment, getting increasingly intoxicated and finally collapsing on the ground in a drawl of self-pity, incorporates several of the novel’s main themes and is both enthralling and genuinely heartbreaking. In the play, the monologue is delivered by an actor in a short film shown to a group of ETA students in a staged film class. The actor in the film is squat with dark, Latino features and as he is speaking in Spanish, another actor, a lanky, ginger-haired German playing the film class teacher, translates his lines in real time, shouting over the recording and running to and fro while gesticulating wildly in an overemphatic re-enactment. The complete disparity between the two actors’ appearance and their mode of delivery combined with the jump from English to Spanish to German (with the latter two occurring simultaneously) results in a jumble that is amusing because of its frenzied pace but is completely bereft of the pathos that was the crux of the novel’s chapter.

This failure of conveying the very essential tragedy and horror in Infinite Jest is true of almost every performance. The humour in the novel is almost always given full priority, with the actors clearly relishing Wallace’s countless hilarious sentences and absurdities. This is no doubt also in part to keep the audience stimulated and awake – the actors’ energy became downright manic in the final location, continuously screaming, bashing the walls, even throwing bangers at the audience’s feet to keep them from passing out in the hallways of the U.S. Office of Unspecified Services – but this balance is too integral an aspect of the novel to be forsaken and only one or two of the performances manage to capture it successfully.

There is some brilliance though. One example is a performance that takes an entry from J.O. Incandenza’s eight-page filmography, “The Joke”, which the novel describes as a film in which “video cameras in theater record the ‘film’s’ audience and project the resultant raster onto screen – the theater audience watching itself watch itself get the obvious ‘joke’ and become increasingly self-conscious and uncomfortable and hostile”. In the play, two actresses stand on stage in front a gigantic screen, each with a camera on a tripod, taking turns in framing different parts of the audience, sometimes in groups, sometimes in individual close-ups, and holding their image projected on screen for unnervingly long stretches. Hostility aside, the reactions were exactly as described and provided a great instance in which a supposedly unadaptable part of the novel, Wallace’s absurd concept of ‘après-gardist’ cinema, is given new life rather than just elaborately referenced (and also served as proof that two-finger bunny ears have yet to lose their novelty value amongst German adults).

So, should one spend €50 and make this veritably huge effort? Some audience members had an ecstatic smile stamped on their face from beginning till end while others (including a few 24-hour-ticket holders) threw in the towel by the third location. Almost all, with more or less grace, fell asleep at some time or other (having a fifth of the audience collapsed in their chair fit aesthetically well at the AA meeting held at 5am, 19 hours in, but it also caused the largest exodus). Still, the large majority stuck it through and judging from the fatigued yet resiliently enthusiastic atmosphere, not simply out of principle either. It’s a crazy experience, ridiculously demanding in terms of stamina, at times deeply absorbing, at times extremely trying if not exasperating, and yet, despite a general penchant for form over content, in its flawless execution and palpable devotion to Wallace’s novel, it’s doubtful that anyone with a love for demanding art will be left wholly unsatisfied.

 Infinite Jest