In July 2011, Anders Behring Breivik arrived on the Norwegian island of Utøya, claiming to be a police officer. He explained to the organizers of an annual youth camp that he was there to maintain calm following a terrorist bombing in Oslo a few hours earlier. In fact, Breivik was the verminous right-wing bigot responsible for the Oslo attack. And on Utøya that day he shot and killed 69 people, including 33 children, before surrendering to authorities.
You won’t glean a single one of those facts from The Events, an overly fragmented piece based on interviews with survivors of the massacre, playing through March 22 at downtown’s New York Theatre Workshop. Artistic interpretations of tragedies aren’t meant to be news reports, of course, but writer David Greig and director Ramin Gray have created a play so patched together from different workshop ideas that it lacks cohesion or insight. The setting is a community center where Claire (Neve McIntosh), a female priest, is grieving from the shooting that left members of her church choir dead. The stoic Clifford Samuel plays the assassin, as well as many other characters, including an aboriginal boy and—in a brief gender swap that doesn’t gel–Claire’s girlfriend. A nature documentary about chimpanzees is discussed. Dialogue inelegantly refers to “the void into which we are drawn” and “an expression of the failure in eroded working-class communities.”
But while tone is often set on high edify, The Events acquires great emotional power through one genuinely moving aspect. At each performance, the actors are joined onstage for the show’s entirety by a different choir group that not only sing throughout but also engage in the dramatic action, complete with line-readings. At the performance I attended, the participating group was the Bella Voce Singers (they’ll also be at the March 7 show), an all-female ensemble from Brooklyn with terrific pipes and a bit of stage fright. Many read dialogue tremulously from binders, yet those uniquely human traits also generated a very human response. When McIntosh announced their name at the curtain call, she was blinking tears from her eyes. And you might be as well. The idea is not one of didactic uplift, but simply a resplendently alive and joyous expression of theater as a breathing art form. And of multiple voices—thousands, even—singing as one. B