From the masks of Greek tragedy to the sets created by the Brazilian Hélio Eichbauer (1941–2018), the performing arts have fed off the visual arts, and vice versa, throughout history. “Theater was already present in the iconography of ancient Greek vases, and the Bienal de São Paulo itself has hosted theater plays.” These connections, in an extensive arc in time and space traced by playwright Karen Sacconi, speak volumes about the exchanges between one expression and the other, which she not only observes but also puts into practice in her most recent creation, the show Monstro, staged by the group As Malecuias, held by the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo and presented at Sesc Santo André in March 2023.
Greek iconography – such as plates and amphorae with passages from the Greek tragedies, epics, and even comedy – shaped the staging, says Milena Faria, the play’s director, and an actor who was part of the cast along with Marcos Suchara, Eliete de Faria, and Anselmo Ubiratan. According to Faria, for the lighting, set design, and costumes, a thematic line was followed inspired by the opposition suggested in the title of the 34th Bienal – Faz escuro mas eu canto (Though it’s dark, still I sing): “I was inspired by Caravaggio, who, in turn, inspired German expressionism, a well from which I also drank to work on the tragic mask and some of the actors’ body compositions. This chiaroscuro movement also influenced Gordon Craig (1872-1966), whose scenography, with simple strokes, was precise in expressing the symbolism of the play.
For Sacconi, “theater has a hybrid nature. In part it is a visual art, though ephemeral. And theater also feeds the visual arts, in addition to scenery, photography, lighting, and posters, theatrical performance was the subject of artists such as Georges Seraut (1859–1891).” In the specific case of Monstro, the playwright also highlights a decisive case that expresses this relationship between the arts in its iconographic aspect:
“Among the Greeks there is a literary expedient called ekphrasis. It is the poetic description of an object, a work, which could be a cup, a bed, a cloth. The most famous is the description of Achilles’ weapons in the Iliad. It is the description of a work of art, rich, full of details, of evocative images. Ekphrasis was also used in theater. The tragic poets described temples, shields. These are visual art forms that are present in theater through words. In the play there is a description of a pile of dead dogs’ heads, which form a pyramid. It is a strong image, it could be an expressionist painting or an installation. But it is in the actor’s mouth, giving another meaning to the pile of garbage bags that is part of the set.”
As expressions of their historical time, the themes and motifs that move theater and visual arts are not infrequently in dialogue, including in the way they rescue the classics and consecrated works through re-readings. “Justice consists in doing what is advantageous to the stronger.” This maxim, belonging to the character Trasímaco from Plato’s Republic, and the Brazilian context of the Covid-19 pandemic, were decisive for the conception of Monstro, for example, in which a tyrant similar to Trasímaco takes power and promotes violence with the establishment of the law of the jungle. On stage, the characters embody a true catharsis – a specialty of the Greek tragics to whom Sacconi resorts as a form of resistance and reflection on our “own tragedy.” “Art is the place to resignify the double plague and discuss our times,” concludes the playwright, who with the play Monstro retrieves ancient theater to insert it in a contemporary debate.
In this sense, Sacconi links her piece to the political character of the 34th Bienal, Faz escuro mas eu canto (Though it’s dark, still I sing), as responses from the arts in a certain common time, with its light, dark, and monsters: “Monstro is a political piece, in essence, and it dives into this darkness, in a movement of growing tension. The protagonist even says, at one point, ‘I am in the dark’. The image is the same as the title of the show. A coincidence, for those who believe in them, but it says a lot about the atmosphere we were breathing. In the show, a pile of posters carried a quote from Gramsci, “The old world is dying, the new one is slow to be born. In this chiaroscuro, monsters emerge”. It was a work by the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, entitled Chiaroscuro. Again the darkness. And the monster.”