Theater where language means nothing

  • 2006-09-13
  • By Joel Alas
TALLINN - Language is no barrier to good theater. Tallinn is currently host to two productions which demonstrate how to make theater accessible to foreign audiences.

One delivers the script in Estonian, the other with almost no text at all. Yet the actors, so lost in their characters, and the directors, with a throttle-grip on the stage play, manage to deliver their stories without losing the plot.
One of the most lauded productions of the summer theater season is "Vincent," presented by the Tallinn City Theater (Tallinna Linnateater).

The play has proven so popular that the theater has extended the season into September.
The story is an adaptation of Nicholas Wright's popular play "Vincent in Brooklyn," which examines a chapter in the life of Vincent Van Gogh, when before he began his artistic career, spent a period living in a London suburb.
Wright's play theorizes that this time in his life served as an awakening for the young man, who arrived in Brixton a poor picture framer and left an artist.

The story is part fact, part fiction, and is based on letters written by Van Gogh at the time. Wright won showers of praise for his work, and in 2003 the production received the prestigious Olivier award for Best Play.
"Vincent" has now been presented on stage around the world, but it's hard to imagine a more ideal cast, set, theater, soundtrack or direction than that delivered by the Tallinna Linnateater.
Alo Korve as Vincent begins his performance as a shy houseguest and ends as an unstable artist, and perfectly depicts his character's progress from one extreme to the other.

His stoic landlady Ursula, played by Epp Eespaev, is the strong and mature widow whom Vincent falls in love with. It's a delight to watch Ursula's leathery character crack under Vincent's charm.
While Vincent and Ursula are indulging in a secret affair, her daughter Eugenie, played by the delightful Hele Kore, is involved in her own with Sam, a promising artist played by the dashing Andero Ermel.
But it's Evelin Pang in the role of Vincent's sister Anna who steals the show. When she makes her entrance after the intermission, Pang makes the audience squirm and laugh with her pious and upright character. She injects humor into the role of rabby Anna, a character who could easily be portrayed as simply a grump by a lesser actor.

The theater itself adds an air of authenticity to the story. Rather than use its own theater, the company selected one of Tallinn's more interesting historic buildings as the stage. The Hobuveski is a small round building once used as a horse-powered mill. Its small size makes for a more intimate atmosphere.
Prosa lets the characters cook, eat and clean on stage as if it were a real kitchen and dining room. The smells and sounds draw the audience into the action 's and leave them quite jealously hungry at the same time. His selected soundtrack, a haunting refrain of piano and strings, is used judiciously to elicit sorrow and sympathy.

I watched the performance in the company of my cousin, who occasionally whispered translations into my ear. It was entirely unnecessary. I understood exactly what was occurring, even though I could only decipher about one in 20 words.
The Linnateater production of "Vincent" displays how even a dialogue-heavy play can be performed and understood by foreigners if aptly staged and acted.

Meanwhile, across town in the Kumu Art Museum Auditorium, another production displays how actors can portray a story using very little dialogue at all.
"Kalevipoeg" is a classic Estonian folk story brought to life by the VAT Teater and Markus Zohner Theater Company.
The story is Estonia's own epic. It tells the legend of Kalevipoeg 's the son of Kalev 's a giant hero who undertakes a series of conquests and journeys. He walks through the sea to Finland, meets and seduces beauties, fights gods and demons, but dies when he cuts his own feet off with his sword. According to legend, Kalevipoeg now stands at the gates of hell, blocking the demons with his size and strength.

The current production is very basic but powerful. Director Markuz Zohner believes that acting should be central to theater, rather than props or costumes. Here, he dresses his actors in plain black clothes, and leaves it to their characterizations to tell the story. The ensemble cast, all veterans of the Estonian stage, are expressive, funny and effective.
One viewer described the production as "more modern dance than theater" because of its limited script. The actors are left to play out the scenes, using words sparingly. It means the play is just as accessible to foreigners as to native Estonian speakers. o

Tallinna Linnateater
Sept. 19, Oct. 18, Oct. 19
Tickets from

Kumu Art Museum Auditorium
Sept.21, Oct. 12