THEATER | Berlin's "Bonanza" at the Walker Art Center: A five-screen salute to a one-horse town

Image courtesy Walker Art Center

In a series of underappreciated radio documentaries, the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould employed an unconventional technique: he intentionally caused his subjects' voices to overlap, staggering them so that their cadences rose and fell together like music. It's impossible to catch every word, at least at first listening, but the pieces' themes are keenly felt as the voices collide and bounce off each other in a cacophony of humanity.

Berlin, a troupe of filmmakers and theater artists from Belgium (it's like naming an American group Toronto), extend that technique to the realm of documentary film. Bonanza, their piece showing this weekend as part of the Walker Art Center's Out There series, is a product of Berlin's decade-long project documenting cities large and small. Bonanza, Colorado is about as small as towns get: when the eponymous documentary was made, the number of people living in the town year-round was exactly seven, living in five households. Berlin give each household its own screen, hanging beneath its representation on a scale diorama of the town. So that the piece's details can be appreciated at close range, the entire audience at the Walker is seated in bleachers on the McGuire Theater stage.

bonanza—a documentary for five screens, presented through january 22 at the walker art center. for information and tickets ($22), see walkerart.org.

The artists make elegant use of the five screens, displaying images that complement or, occasionally, contrast with one another. Each screen also has its own soundtrack, and voices overlap a couple of times, but Berlin are not aiming for Gould-style impressionism. Once you're accustomed to the piece's unusual style, Bonanza unfolds much like a conventional documentary film: we meet the characters, learn the background, and then watch the characters resolve a conflict. The diorama's illumination changes, but other than that the diorama is merely a framing element that emphasizes the town's intimacy—not a dynamic element that interacts with the video.

Through sly editing, Berlin introduce the town's residents as down-home but charmingly idiosyncratic characters. The desire to get away from it all is easy to understand, and the town residents discuss their isolated status (the nearest gas station is 30 miles away) with gentle humor. Slowly, though, it's revealed that the relationships among the town residents are more complicated than they might seem—as are the residents themselves.

The piece's climax, which pits a Bonanza couple in a legal battle against a group of part-year residents who have elected themselves to control of the town's administration, is unsatisfying from a dramatic standpoing and feels rushed; the piece might have been more successful if it had stayed away from the court drama and stuck to simply exploring the residents' psychology. Still, Bonanza is an innovative, revealing, and very enjoyable staycation to a town that's nice to visit, though you wouldn't want to live there.

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Jay Gabler's picture
Jay Gabler

Jay Gabler (@JayGabler) is a digital producer at The Current and Classical MPR.

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The Idea of North

Coincidentally, Judith Pearlman's film about Gould's Idea of North is screening tomorrow at Franklin Art Works.