THEATER | With “The Great War” at the Walker, Hotel Modern explore the no man’s land between theater and film


I understand that Philip Bither, the Walker Art Center’s curator of performing arts, chooses the productions to be included in each year’s Out There series as a curator of visual arts would choose paintings to hang alongside one another on a gallery wall: Bither selects pieces that speak to one another and present different perspectives on a central theme. Certainly Hotel Modern’s The Great War (originally created in 2001 and playing at the Walker this weekend) is interesting to consider in light of Radiohole’s Whatever, Heaven Allows—which preceded it by two weeks in the McGuire Theater. Both pieces deploy formidible craft using transparent devices, but to very different effect.

Like Radiohole, the members of Hotel Modern—a troupe based in Rotterdam—create their pieces before the audience’s eyes. There’s no “off stage” as such: visual and sound effects are coordinated by performers (Herman Helle, Pauline Kalker, and Trudi Klever, with sound by tireless foley artist Arthur Sauer) visible to the audience. Both make dynamic use of video, but whereas Radiohole employs prerecorded clips, all the video in The Great War is live. A large screen displays feeds alternately taken from a number of different cameras trained on tiny sets. The company refers to the technique as “live animation”: scenes are created with puppets and miniatures in real time. When you watch Hotel Modern do their work, you are watching what is essentially an unfilmed film and you are also watching the making of that film happening simultaneously.

It’s a smart idea, but hardly groundbreaking conceptually: really, it’s just a high-tech version of shadow puppetry. Nor is the subject matter of The Great War particularly novel. Using authentic letters from the various fronts of World War I as texts, the Hotel Modern players represent the absurdity and the horror of war. If you’ve read All Quiet on the Western Front, you know the story; if you’ve seen Ken Burns’s documentary on the American Civil War, you’ve approximately seen the cinematic approach. If The Great War were created and presented as a standard film, it would be a moving but nontheless minor addition to the vast war-is-hell corpus. People would talk about the interesting choice to portray one of history’s most horrific conflicts with a medium generally reserved for gently charming shorts about anthropomorphic foodstuffs falling in love.

the great war, presented through january 30 at the walker art center. for tickets ($20) and information, see

The Great War is effective in that respect, but what would be considerable emotional impact in any case is heightened by the immediacy of the company’s technique. Even though you know the soldier’s boots you’re seeing on the screen are just tiny little puppet boots—after all, there they are right in front of you marching across what you can see to be not much more than a card table covered in potting soil—the fact that you know they are actually, physically marching through real live soil at the moment you’re watching them do so on video alters the way the video image affects you. What’s most special about Hotel Modern’s approach is that a technique that logically should pull you out of the story, should make it harder to suspend your disbelief and focus on the men in the mud nearly 100 years ago, instead sharpens the focus of the story being told and serves to make that story even more absorbing.

Employing a similarly transparent approach, Radiohole take a bitingly sarcastic tack that repeatedly—and very deliberately—yanks the rug out from under the viewer, reminding you that narrative is a cliché and theater is an illusion. They certainly make their point, but it doesn’t make for a very pleasant evening out. There’s nothing pleasant about war, but a well-told war story at least leaves one with the sense that we can achieve empathy with the victims of past conflicts and hopefully learn from their suffering. I would love to see Radiohole tackle material like The Great War, because it would raise the stakes—destroying All Quiet on the Western Front means something quite different than destroying All That Heaven Allows, though the two employ similarly calculated techniques (sight, sound, narrative) to create an emotional impression on the viewer.

But enough about Radiohole. They’re gone, and Hotel Modern are still in town. If you can, you should see The Great War. (Even for non-members, shows at the Walker are a bargain—you get to see cutting-edge performances by world-class companies for what would be a rush-ticket price at most big local venues.) Though The Great War is a many-times-told story, Hotel Modern tell it beautifully and hauntingly, with a technique that demonstrates just how hard it is to escape the power of a good—if desperately sad—story when its tellers sincerely believe in the importance of telling it.