This live stage show demonstrated how an artwork can be undeniably entertaining, probably more than the sum of its apparent influences, and yet still feel not quite essential.
The show, which I saw at the New Hazlett on Oct. 23, was making its U.S. debut as part of the Cultural Trust's Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts. It's hugely funny and beautifully performed by a cast of four men, playing cogs in some fictional totalitarian bureacracy. Their uniform dress -- like the set, it's all olive-drab and gray -- and the Space Age props (manual typewriter, flashing incandescent lightbulbs), holler "Eastern Bloc," and the men have been stuck in this seemingly underground office long enough to run out of cigarettes. They've also essentially created their own culture: When not responding to messages (delivered by pneumatic tube) instructing them to create radio programs, they enact a series of manic rituals to allay crushing boredom. Their jobs and pastimes are both hilarious, from the old-school radio productions to a spitting contest, a puppet show and even a couple of surreal group modern-dance routines.
Oh, and while there's a lot of dialogue, none of it is in English, or any other real language, but rather a kind of formally eloquent gibberish. (Think Chaplin's speeches as Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator.)
It all recalled, variously, the Marx Brothers, Kafka via Looney Tunes and, finally, circus clowns sans whiteface. And then the overtones grew darker -- hopeless attempts to decipher ruined text, sounds of distant bombfall. As the existence of a parallel outside world was suggested, expressionistically existential elements overtook the narrative, and it started most resembling circus clowns dosed on Beckett (who himself of course dosed on clowns).
I was engaged throughout, and laughed as hard as I had at anything since Borat. At the post-show Q&A, the four affable members of this Norwegian troupe proved charming. One of them was born in Poland (whose native tongue inspired the invented, largely improvised dialogue). Their explanation of the show's origins made it sound like an uneasily nostalgic take on Norway's uneasy proximity to Soviet Russia during the Cold War. Hence, too, the apocalyptic tint, and a nod (they said) to Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's classic existential science-fiction film Stalker, forebear to The Department's theme of ambiguously desirable escape to terra incognita.
I left feeling that while the company had created something formally fresh, the familiarity of its themes portended only a little more than a gleaming, if madcap, entertainment.