With physical theater and invented language, Jo Strømgren Kompani explores bureaucracy in The Department. | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

With physical theater and invented language, Jo Strømgren Kompani explores bureaucracy in The Department

click to enlarge Create expectations: Jo Strmgren Kompani performs The Department.
  • Create expectations: Jo Strmgren Kompani performs The Department.

In institutional terms, Jo Strømgren Kompani is but a pup, this year celebrating one decade as an independent ensemble developing works of dance, theater, dance-theater and whatever other classification one could impose.

In cultural-impact years, however, it's a group of seasoned old salts who've racked up a lifetime of street cred by their aluminum anniversary. They've developed a repertoire that averages out to one piece per year, visited nearly 50 countries and released a full-length film. Enthusiastic audiences have been won worldwide, and critics have bestowed none but the highest praise, including the British Theatre Guide's directive: "If you find this performance coming to a venue near you in the future, kill for a ticket."

The performance referenced is The Department. It is, in fact, coming to a theater near you: The New Hazlett Theater, where it makes its U.S. premiere with two performances as part of the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts.

While murder shouldn't prove necessary to secure entry, do what you must. The Department was conceived by the troupe's eponymous co-founder, who has been called the "Thor Heyerdahl of dance." (Agnes Kroepelien was the other pivotal force behind the ensemble's birth in Bergen, Norway.) The piece is an examination of bureaucracy, and like bureaucracy itself manages to be at once both ominously disturbing and snortingly ludicrous. Four men are trapped -- or do they only think so? -- in a government office, and have been there for quite some time. Like all good worker bees, they do what they're told. They respond to signals aural and visual, working diligently to please simply for the sake of pleasing, executing tasks nonsensical to the best of their abilities, when perhaps their efforts would be better put to questioning the validity of those tasks.

The 70-minute piece features choreography, sets, props, costumes and sound design by Strømgren. Though he made his name directing dancers, in The Department Strømgren utilizes four actors to plumb the depths of dark humor and despair inherent in this material. Dialogue of a kind is incorporated, and though unintelligible in any language, it is no less incomprehensible and confusing than discourse with a supervisor fluent in corporate office-speak. (Anyone who's toiled under a robot boss will immediately recognize the similarities between Strømgren's office dogsbodies speaking in tongues and phrases like "maximize your potential as an element of the organization.")

The Department is comic, painful, ridiculous and brutally honest. While you're watching, you'll undoubtedly giggle at the antics of Strømgren's hapless drones even as you thrill to the talents of his performers and the sharpness of his vision. But the misadventures in bureaucracy will stay with you long after the curtain has fallen ... at least throughout your next day at work.


Jo Strømgren Kompani's The Department. 8 p.m. Thu., Oct. 23, and 10 p.m. Fri., Oct. 24. New Hazlett Theatre, 6 Allegheny Square, North Side. $20. 412-456-6666 or www.pifof.org



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