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An Analysis of Jan Fabre’s The Orgy of Tolerance

{From the Moderator: The following is a response to The Orgy of Tolerance, streamed from OnTheBoards.tv}

When a play opens with an eight minute long masturbation competition, I can safely say no matter what else, my interest will be piqued. But with The Orgy of Tolerance, Jan Fabre managed to take me on an emotional journey, where other artists may have just instilled their audience with shock. I was dazed for maybe a minute where my mind had to realign to understand the world I was entering, but after that I was laughing my ass off, then almost brought to tears. This just from eight minutes. This just from masturbation.

Fabre is no stranger to breaking social norms. Just October of last year he was throwing cats up flights of stairs in the name of Art to the chagrin of cat lovers everywhere. Born in 1958 in Antwerp, Fabre is identified as many things. Artist, sculptor, dramaturg, director, performer and more. But rather than being turned off by their inability to fully categorize him, most critics have embraced Fabre and his aesthetic. He’s risen to a considerable level of fame, and not just because his work is shocking. While his pieces may be close to experimental, they are far from hard to understand.

His work often toes the line of taboo. One of his most famous pieces, Heaven of Delight, decorated the ceiling of Belgium’s Royal Palace with beetle shells. Other than being a little eccentric, the piece itself is beautiful, debatably cruel to animals, and debatable a sustainable piece of architecture. Much of his work creates tension in connotation. Just look at the title of The Orgy of Tolerance.  There’s a lot going on there. Clearly.

To give a lucid idea of the piece but as not to spoil too much, I’ll share with you the summary written for ontheboards.tv, “A wild spectacle about excess, greed and the ecstasy of consumption […] Fabre employs actors, dancers and musicians to paint a provocative panorama of a Visa/MasterCard society that indulges in every possible fetish.” Pretty clear right? And this is exactly the play. Outside of the aforementioned masturbation competition, we become witness to a woman being fucked in the ass by a Winchester (only to later have its baby), “terrorists” who protect us from the horrors of curry at Christmas time, a Blue Danube shopping cart waltz, and so much more.

Fabre or his actors have clear training in physical theatre. Outside of the Grotowsky-born stamina, throughout the show the performers exude an intense commitment to physicality, something necessary in a piece that wants to blatantly explore how sexuality and consumerism mix. While the only actualized sexual act in the piece involves an actor with the business end of a rifle in his anus, the specificity of the images in the piece evoke the same level of eroticism, pain, and awe as if it had all been realized.

And it is the images that really convey to us sense of meaning or message. The Orgy of Tolerance has no overarching plot, it is a collage of scenes. Fabre is giving us a taste of every aspect of life and how that is affected by the poison of consumption. The piece is not far from a piece of performance art and could easily be considered such through the right lens. Though the weakest scene was the one closest to a cliché piece of European performance art. Not because it was not clear, but because it was boring. Actors made love to non-existent bodies while professing their passion. The moment just did not fit into the vocabulary that had been established.

One of Fabre’s greatest successes though is the beauty with which the images are realized. The lighting made clear the sense of bland and generic pleasure that comes from a life realized through consumerism. The stage was bare except for the props that were used: the previously mentioned Winchesters shopping carts were the biggest ones. The costumes were specific, though I am still lost on their meaning. About half of the cast was dressed as the icon of an insurgent soldier with rifles strapped to their backs. In two scenes the costumes clearly inspired/were inspired by the storytelling, but in others their purpose was unclear. Maybe it was a sign of the actors as revolting against the system? Or the tyranny we fall under from consumption? Maybe both?

What I struggled with most though was that, at times, the message of the play felt almost simplistic. Especially in the first half of the piece, Fabre makes it incredibly easy to disassociate oneself from the cause of capitalism/consumerism making the issue an Us vs. Them preaching to the choir. It is not until later in the piece that Fabre makes clear that the real concern is not the people that continue the growth of consumerism, in fact most are just ignorant/innocent victims. Rather the problem is what it is consumerism does to us as human beings, and how we continue to allow ourselves to fall victim to its attractive lure.

But the final movement of the piece, a movement piece, shows us the world that we could be living in. A rocking musical score accompanies the most free, joyful, and expressive the cast has been. When everything else drops away, when we are just ourselves, human beings in time and space, we become capable of amazing things. Fabre makes it unambiguous that while we may propagate the problem we are not the problem. We are the solution.

And with this Fabre ends the piece with an intense level of hope. What really lets The Orgy of Tolerance succeed is that Fabre is never lecturing us without a sense of fun. Just as the audience is not fully implicated as the villain, Fabre does not deny that objects and sex all do come with a sense of pleasure and humor.

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