The Dance for Me theater company’s “Petra” at Tjarnarbíó
Following the astounding success of their last collaboration, “Dansaðu fyrir mig,” (‘Dance for Me’), collaborators (and fiances) Pétur Ármannsson and Brogan Davison have used their new show “Petra” to reapproach some of the former show’s more fertile topics—artistic creation and family—while also dipping into the more complicated aspects of memory, autobiography, and storytelling.
Debuting as part of the Lókal international theater festival, “Petra” is ostensibly a glimpse into the life of Pétur’s great grandmother, Petra Sveinsdóttir, whose semi-obsessive passion for collecting lead her to amass thousands of stones in and around her home in Stöðvarfjörður, East Iceland. (Petra decided to turn her home into a museum in 1974 and it remains open to the public to this day.) But while the show does make use of family photographs, home videos, and personal anecdotes about Petra—“The Grand Old Lady,” as she’s characterized on her museum’s website—it becomes immediately clear that “Petra” is not your typically staged biography.
Stepping to the front of the stage as the show begins, Brogan matter-of-factly tells the audience that four days ago, Pétur—once the star of what had been planned to be a one-man show—declared that he refused to go on stage at all, that the theater was bullshit, and that he didn’t want to subject his grandmother’s memory to such uncomfortable scrutiny. (Instead, Brogan explains to much audience hilarity, he’s been sitting at home eating nothing but frozen pizzas from which he removes the pepperoni, having a “moral imperative” to stop eating meat, but liking the way that it flavors the sauce.) But, as she is “the strong, female character,” Brogan has decided that the show will go on, and has enlisted the help of two of Pétur’s childhood friends—Kolbeinn, a former fisherman turned would-be actor, and Hjalti Jón, a musician—to help tell this story.
What follows is an often antically self-reflexive and fourth wall-breaking performance which does dip into Petra’s life and legacy—using such things as audio interviews, archival footage of a TV interview Petra gave about about the elves’ opinion of her stone-collecting, and a clip from the 2004 film “Kaldaljós” in which she was an extra—while also diverging from this topic as the three performers add in their own personal anecdotes (a phone call made from Kolbeinn’s sea-tossed fishing boat in which his brother encourages him to follow his heart’s desire and become an actor), draw their own comparisons (Hjalti uses American basketball star Scottie Pippen’s refusal to take part in the final moments of a definitive playoff game as a parallel for Pétur’s refusal to act in his own show), and attempt to shape the narrative to suit their own purposes.
The best of these tangents allow us access to moments in Pétur’s childhood—a particularly sweet sequence of home videos show him playing and lounging with the family dog who had a penchant for eating Petra’s stones—and also find the players examining the question of whether Petra’s mania for collecting was simply a hobby (as she herself apparently felt) or rather a form of artistry. A middle sequence in which Kolbeinn dresses as an elf, adopts a Scottish accent, and decries “the white-haired demon” who stole his family’s rock homes definitely won over the audience, but felt rather more forced.
Although it is not yet as polished or emotionally-resonant as “Dansaðu fyrir mig,” its predecessor, “Petra’s” pastiche of Pétur’s memories and his loved ones’ secondhand interpretations of these makes an interesting commentary on the way we shape the deeply meaningful narratives that inform our lives and the people we understand ourselves to be. And in their willingness to explore aspects of their real lives and relationships on stage, to poke fun at themselves and dissect the mechanism of storytelling, Pétur and Brogan continue to bring something fresh to the local performance landscape.
“Petra” will show at Tjarnarbíó on September 5 and 11. Purchase tickets online here. Brogan and Pétur have recently established the DFM (Dance for me) company, see more about their projects at dfmcompany.com.
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