By Brigid Grauman
29.05.2008 / http://www.bloomberg.com
May 30 (Bloomberg) -- You enter an anonymous-looking building in central Brussels. A little surprised, you ask the concierge where to go and he tells you to take the elevator to the fourth floor. There a receptionist suggests you wait in an armchair. After a short while, she tells you to go to an office -- in my case, 417.
This is theater by the German collective Rimini Protokoll, who over the past eight years have become an influential group in Europe and further afield. They are presenting ``Call Cutta in a Box'' daily -- during office hours -- as part of the yearly avant-garde Brussels event, Kunstenfestivaldesarts, and like everything they do, it hovers on the edges of reality.
When I get to room 417, it's empty. There's a view of the Brussels skyscape, a blue linoleum floor, a desk with a computer screen on it, a tacky couch with gold stripes and a small table holding an electric kettle, a cup of tea, tea bags and sugar. There are three nondescript pictures on the wall and potted plants. It's an old-fashioned and gloomy office. This is the stage set.
Then the phone rings. I pick it up. „Hi, is this Brigid?'' „Yes.'' „I'm Avisek Arora from the Escon Call Center in Calcutta.''
For 50 minutes, Avisek and I talk. He tells me about the weather in his city, now known as Kolkata, (it had been raining for two days), that he writes plays and directs them, and that he wants to tour the world with a traveling circus. He also asks me how old I am, whether I have a hereditary disease, if I've taken illegal drugs and what was the biggest mistake I've ever committed.
I can't say that I unfurled like a fern in the spring but we also talked about the Hindu philosophy of death and about our favorites in music and film. At one point, Avisek asked me to close my eyes and he sang me a song in Hindi. At another, he magically switched on the kettle and suggested I make myself a cup of tea; he asked me to try the mouth- freshening Indian sweet, Chutki, under the computer keyboard, which he said most people found soapy.
When the 50 minutes were up, I left the office feeling elated. I had established a bond with an educated 30-year-old Indian in a contrived real-life situation. I thought of the illusion of proximity in our globalized world and the illusion of closeness in a relationship. I also pondered on the fact that so many things in life are theater, and that distant call centers are about pretending to be somewhere you are not.
The people at the other end of the line are not actors, but what Rimini Protokoll call „experts,'' individuals with varied experiences of life, from morticians and failed politicians to concierges.
Thanks to these people, the troupe's productions invariably offer a fresh, often startling take on socio- economic issues. Making up this loose collective are two Germans, Helgard Haug and and Daniel Wetzel, and one Swiss, Stefan Kaegi, who met at a theater school in Germany.
Their productions move defiantly between real life and artifice. ``Cargo Sofia-X'' had the audience sitting, instead of freight, inside a truck while two Bulgarian drivers took them, talking about waiting in line at the Latvian border or the difficulty of obtaining visas and missing their families. The audience got a backdoor view of Europe -- highway stops and gas stations.
In „Mnemopark. A Mini Train World,'' three toy-railway enthusiasts directed trains around a Swiss landscape on the stage, and in „Sabenation. Go Home and Follow the News,'' six former employees of the bankrupt Belgian airline reminisced.
So far, Rimini Protokoll has put on some 50 productions, mostly in German-speaking countries, although they've covered most of Europe, except Britain, as well as India and Argentina. No matter how comical some of the situations they create may at first appear, their work is at once philosophical and political, touching on fundamental questions about our globalized society and our place within it.
„Call Cutta in a Box'' is also playing in Berlin, Mannheim, Helsinki and Zurich. For details of Rimini Protokoll's productions, click on http://www.rimini-protokoll.de. For more on the Kunstenfestivaldesarts, which ends tomorrow, see http://www.kfda.be.
(Brigid Grauman is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)