Detroit Dealers at the Distinctively Dutch Festival | Program Notes

Detroit Dealers at the Distinctively Dutch Festival

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The Cultural Trust's big three-month showcase of contemporary art and performance from Holland continued with experimental theater troupe Wunderbaum's take on the differences between Americans and the Dutch. Last night's world premiere at the Trust's Arts Education Center had its moments, but still felt rather like a work-in-progress.

The premise involved a business trip to Detroit taken 50 years ago by Wunderbaum actor/writer Walter Bart's grandfather, who worked for a European GM affiliate. In the engaging short documentary-style film that opened the evening, we're told that part of Grandfather's time in Detroit was spent making a love child with a black woman ... whose granddaughter Bart and theatrical accomplice Maartje Remmers proceed to track down.

I say "documentary-style" because Bart admittedly enjoys blurring the line between fact and fiction. Regardless, whether Detroit singer and performance poet Rosemarie Wilson (pictured here with Bart) is really Bart's cousin is less important than the fact that Detroit Dealers plays out their relationship mainly as a debate between American car culture and Dutch bike culture.

In the evening's live portion, this is first done, rather disarmingly, with an unlikely rap battle between Bart and Wilson. No surprise that the American evinced a better flow — but this naked and theatrically risky ploy paid off, especially after Wilson got the stage to herself to solo with some salty lyrics touching on the sexual possiblities of automobile travel. (Inarguably, they are more varied than those available to cyclists.)

The loosely structured show also included three interludes featuring the statuesque blonde Remmers portraying three different versions of the automobile.

The most successful was the first, a pin-up-girl come-on circa 1962, playing off the power, freedom and sexiness cars promised.

The second incarnation was Remmer's emodiment of the present-day car, gloomily apologizing for the enviromental and social mess it's made of the world. There was an insight or two, like how machines promising limitless mobility trap us inside them during traffic jams, but the tone was off: While Americans don't love cars the same way they used to, we do feel entitled to them, and few of us are actually apologetic about how ruinous that privilege is. This segment might have been funnier and more incisive if the car were, say, a swaggering character whose bragadoccio gave him away.

In the third car sequence, Remmers donned a futuristic coverall to minimalistically tout the anticipated triumph of the electric car. Like a baffling little hop-and-skip movement sequence Bart executed elsewhere in the show, the electric-car scene was everything you hope performance art won't be: repetitive, self-indulgent and unenlightening. (It reminded me of similar, apparently unironic bits in Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson's stage show at the Carnegie last year, leaden clunkers weighing down an otherwise charming evening.)

Detroit Dealers was bolstered by its slick lighting design and an amazing two-man band, drummer Jens Bouttery and saxophonist/guitarist Andrew Claes. The concluding scene, imagining the first meeting between Bart's grandfather and his Detroit lover, was affecting.

Unfortunately, in terms of exploring two cultures, Detroit Dealers seldom got beyond the superficial — cars vs. bikes. There's something besides higher petrol prices that keep an affluent society like the Netherlands from being completely autocentric, and I was hoping to hear a little more about that last night.

Detroit Dealers has two more performances, at 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow, at 805/807 Liberty Ave., Downtown.

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