It sounds, at first, like another Louis Bunuel film about bourgeois decadence -- but crossed with "Bugsy Malone." Friends gather for a long, intimate dinner party at a European villa, then quarrel, reveal their secrets and fall into drunken groping. Breakfast the next morning is awkward.
But what starts out as a roughly made, almost verite-style film, with adults dressed for dinner, turns into a performance by 12- to 15-year-old children on stage, lip-syncing to the adults' lines. Then, as the adults' voices are turned off, the kids bring their supposed innocence to their elders' ragged, self-deceiving experience.
This elaborate conceit, called "uBUNG" -- it means "practice" in Flemish -- grew out of a theatrical residence by Belgian playwright Josse De Pauw. Wednesday through Saturday at the Freud Playhouse, it will be the final event in UCLA Live's second International Theatre Festival.
On the phone from Brussels, De Pauw explains that he was asked by the Ghent, Belgium-based theater company Victoria, whose eclectic work has been compared to that of New York's Wooster Group, to produce a piece with children.
But he had never worked with kids before and found them somewhat frightening. When he thought about writing a piece that would attract an audience of children, he was left baffled. "I make performances," says De Pauw, who keeps his pieces as open-ended as possible. "Then I wait and see who comes to them."
It was a little later, while he was at a dinner party with adults in one room and children watching "The Lion King" in another, that the concept hit him. "The adults shouted at the kids to turn down the volume," he recalls.
Startlingly, the children began reciting the words of the movie even with the sound off.
De Pauw -- who calls the piece that resulted from this impetus a "short-circuiting" of the adult world through the eyes of children -- says he didn't have any stable meaning in mind; he likes his work to spark associations. Reviewers have judged it dark, playful and intense.
Yet whatever it is, "uBUNG" clearly touches on important, perhaps uncomfortable, themes. Britain's Guardian described it as revealing the child as "the spy" of domestic life, an "observer of the adult world -- watching, mimicking and learning."
Influenced by audiences
Though his reputation exists mostly in Europe, De Pauw has been involved in this kind of theater for more than three decades, while also sustaining a parallel career as a film actor.
When asked which playwrights served as aesthetic guidance for him -- his work seems sprung from Brecht's alienation effect, which creates an emotional distance from what's happening onstage -- De Pauw insists his pieces are shaped more by his appearances in front of audiences.
"We had a movement here in Flanders, 30 years ago, that was about the emancipation of the actor," he says. "Actors started to do their own work, in some cases without a director, because the big houses back then had stagnated."
He's also been inspired by director John Cassavetes, whose films have a raw, improvisational feel, and Dutch writers such as Louis Paul Boon, whose work shares with his an interest in how sweeping historical forces affect individuals on the periphery.
In 1977, De Pauw co-founded Radeis, a "silent theater" group whose style was a consequence of poverty: The group had no money and wanted to be able to perform in as many places as possible. "In Europe, everybody speaks different languages," he says. "So you better shut up -- then everybody understands you."
The group appeared in Los Angeles at the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival -- his only previous experience of having his work performed here.
The following year, he wrote a piece set to music by Peter Vermeersch, which brought him greater visibility and set the style for the work that ensued. "My theater comes out of the people I meet, who may be dancers or musicians," he says.
Conveniently, he finds the Low Countries an especially rich area for stage arts, with their combination of experimental theater, contemporary dance, conservatory-trained classical musicians entranced by jazz and frequent crossovers between genres. His own work is in this spirit.
"When I want to work with someone, I don't have a result in mind," De Pauw says. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."
Emulation with accuracy
Part of what made "uBUNG" work, in fact, was getting the right children, with both sufficient acting skills and a physical resemblance to the adults (who include the playwright) -- but not too much.
"I was looking for kids who looked like kids," says De Pauw, who's now on his second cast. "The first kids grew out of the performance -- they got too sure of themselves. The line between the kids and the adults on stage has to be very clear."