Directed by: Dries Verhoeven
Part of: Wiener Festwochen
Seen on: 22.5.2018

A haunted house, a ghost train riding through darkness. But what exactly are we afraid of? As political rhetoric keeps whipping up fear and looks for a scapegoat, we might be missing the most obvious and dangerous developments.

Phobiarama builds its concept from a single idea and that idea is a good one. The execution doesn’t work all the way through, but it works most of the time. They do make a good point.

Two people in a bumper car in the dark.

[SPOILERS, I guess. Can you spoil a performance?]

Let me describe what happens: you sit in a bumper car that is driving circles in the dark, at first onl yilluminated by flickering screens in the corners. You hear angry politicians spouting racist, right-wing shit (real politicians), as well as arabic talking (I don’t know what they said). Slowly it gets lighter and in the twilight, you can see shapes looming in the dark – giant bears coming closer and closer to the bumper cars. The cars stop, the bears take off their costumes, revealing clown costumes beneath. the bumper cars start driving backwards, at high speed. The clowns come along for the ride, they start dancing suggestively. They undress, revealing Arabic/brown men in their underwear. Meanwhile on the screens we can see a person being pulled from one of the bumper cars. We can hear dogs barking. One of the men starts singing in German (a catholic song, if I remember correctly).

Phobiarama is a short performance – about 45 minutes long – but it didn’t need more time to make its point. In fact, it wasn’t exactly subtle about it, so playing it longer would have probably meant overdoing it: here we have the scary animals, the scary, sexualized clowns – turning out to be vulnerable brown men that we have villified. Meanwhile, the very people thinking themselves safe in the bumper cars get attacked, their freedom stripped away – and we barely notice, we are that occupied with the brown men in front of our noses.

Bumper cars drivign around bears watching TV.

And I have to say that the bears were really creepy to me – the first part of the performance really was a very effective haunted house, no matter the political implications. They really made me flinch a couple of times. And when the bumper cars start driving backwards, it’s also unsettling. The clowns didn’t do that much for me on a scare level (I’m just not scared of clowns, what can you do), but by that point the political stuff was at the forefront of the performance anyway. (I wondered whether I would have preferred if the men had been putting on the costumes one after the other instead of the other way round. I’m not sure.)

The ending was a bit of a let-down for me, though. It just didn’t carry the punch it should have carried, it didn’t tie things together for me. And I have to say that the events on the screen (the abduction of a person from a bumper car) happened too much under the radar, I almost missed it entirely. But it’s definitely an interesting performance that provides a lot to discuss, even if I left it with a slight feeling of being underwhelmed.

Bumper cars driving past a dancing clown.

Summarizing: Interesting, political, strong with an ending that doesn’t do it justice.

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