Manifesting Borges

Orbis Tertius, an experimental theatre piece by Matteo Marziano Graziano, went up at Theater Aufbau Kreuzberg in early July, with participation, puzzles and surrealism to boot.

Image for Manifesting Borges
Photo by Anne-Mareike Hess

Orbis Tertius  an experimental piece conceived by Matteo Marziano Graziano – went up at TAK in early July and offered a puzzling evening of adventure for intrepid theatre-goers.

Leading the audience in loops through the entire Aufbau complex, the event borrows its name from a Borges story about a mysterious imaginary country. Like the source material, Graziano’s piece presents a complex and bizarre world, transforming a building complex in the middle of Berlin into a distant fantasy.

For the first leg of the adventure we pick through the space, curiously. A large room lit with marquee lights contains strange, solitary figures. Benches for perching and observing lay all around. The feeling is reminiscent of a nightclub on an off night – just as tense, albeit a bit more perplexing.

Moving ahead, attendees motion for us to put on personal headsets. They play lush and electronic tones, with an occasional male voice crackling through. The effect is isolating: cozy, but distantly ominous. Dancers move in unison in front of an oceanic backdrop. The movements are placid, their bodies occasionally rippling like Shiva arms. Hypnotizing.

For the rest of the journey, the magnitude of the production expands impressively. We pick through a trashed courtyard, strewn with empty water bottles. We head up a flight of stairs onto a concrete catwalk, where a projection flickers: news reports and stock footage of a war-torn city. In windows and on rooftops strange figures contort and move. The immersive effect is total, and the city itself seems alive with a dark fantasy.

Moving through a dark hallway, I encounter the most stunning piece of craftsmanship of the night: a massive black crow, pecking at detritus on the floor and confronting passersby with its big yellow eye. Puppet artist Mirjam Schollmeyer’s handiwork combined with the performer’s birdlike mannerisms to take on a truly unsettling dramatic effect.

As we progress forward, the games begin. We are attached to a stranger by the wrist, and asked to embark on some kind of quest. My partner and I climb a flight of stairs awkwardly. At the top, a single door says “WC”. We look at each other and blush.

A set of double doors leads to a massive, shiny, multi-level complex populated with more oddball characters in cartoonish costumes. A man in a gold suit moves frantically along a grid. A woman out of a noir film tosses letters wistfully off a balcony. Higher up, a man in a green suit darts around. People from the street watch through a security gate, their noses pressed against the metal. Props lie about – an array of blue bottles, a set of greenish stones – while upstairs, a man in a blue cloak guards a secret room with his ski poles. We slowly realize – this is a puzzle, and Room 707 is our destination.

The collecting quest was thrilling and the manifold symbolic figures were endlessly fascinating; the abstract connections between all the disparate elements of the show, however, remain foggy to me, even after solving the riddle and gaining access to the finale. Given that fact, the bright colors and the cartoonish costumes – while fantastical – seemed so extreme that they risked breaking the illusion. The physically active nature of the show, too – up and down stairs – posed some accessibility problems that disrupted the fantasy for others.

However, the project truly succeeded in conjuring an outlandish world one could engage in and forget themselves in. Like a Borges story, it made use of the bizarre to stimulate new ways of thinking about social and artistic worlds; only a little more coherence could have deepened the commentary, without sacrificing the delight.

Orbis Tertius, ran July 2, 3, and 6: an interdisciplinary piece directed and choreographed by Matteo Marziano Graziano at the Theater Aufbau Kreuzberg.