(Not familiar with Akvavit Theatre? See the most recent interview: Staging the Nordic Imaginary)
Just what sort of insistent visitor is the “media,” this unexpected gift left without notice on the doorstep of our inner, “unmediated” experience – on the threshold of truly private, personal life, which unfolds prior to explication or observation? Once experience accepts this social invitation (adopting the form of status updates, photos, blogs, language) – it begins to comply with the latest regulations of an economy of tradeable, communicable “episodes” of individual life, submitting to majoritarian forces that do not always support the interests of a life well lived. In the highly saturated and interconnected media landscape that is today’s social economy, it is no longer necessary – and for many, apparently too difficult or no longer possible – to attend to the interpretation and production of our own understanding of experience when it is so readily available for appropriation from expressions already in circulation.

You may argue that humans have always been social animals and that language and money were some of the earliest forms of “social media.” So when we talk about the effects of today’s hypersocial media on our attention spans, or our desires for disconnecting or for some utopian equilibrium between privacy and social validation, between the fulfillment of personal life and the realities of the wider world – aren’t we always acknowledging the observations which poststructuralism popularized for the later twentieth century – that we are always captured and articulated by “mediation machines” of various sorts, but that these articulations always fail, that there is always an excess or remainder (leaving open the question of the existence of self – that “ontological fallacy” as Rustin Cohle puts it in episode 3 of True Detective)? Think of psychoanalysis, psychiatry or other discursive authorities that produce diagnostic narratives of the self. Now consider the nation state as similarly caught within the global economic apparatus. Think of a rather tiny nation – an island surrounded by the digital sea of automated algorithmic procedures, high-frequency trading, collateralized debt obligations and markets that never close.


MISHAP!: Social Responsibility in Post-Crash Iceland
Such would be the very historically post-modern context of Iceland in MISHAP! (dir. Chad Eric Bergman, assist. dir Wm. Bullion), the fifth and final production in Akvavit Theatre’s first full “Nordic cycle” of contemporary drama from Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland. The script was written by Icelandic playwright Bjarni Jónsson about 18 months before the financial crash of late September 2008 – which director Chad Eric Bergman witnessed in person as it hit Iceland. Bergman had been awarded a Riksbankens Juileumsfond grant for exploring real and imagined Nordic spaces, so he went to Iceland with 5 others and hit it off immediately with Jónsson, who shared his avant-garde theatrical sensibilities and gave Bergman several of his scripts to read. The two of them went to the same pub two nights in a row and Bergman ordered the same beer each night. The first night it cost $13 (USD), but just the next night it was priced at just a little over $2 (USD). He found this out once he got back home and saw his American Express bill – because no one was accepting cash at the time, he had to put it all on credit.

The script for MISHAP!, which is truly genius, hints at the political and personal tensions in the era of global digital capitalism on this island that’s about to “sink into the ocean,” as one protester puts it. Bergman goes so far as to say that it foresees the financial crash. If it does, and I think I agree, it does so allegorically, through the imbrication of one couple’s story with several other accounts by “social authorities” that constitute the play’s insistence on this issue of witnessing, recording, retelling and remembering in the age of hyper-sharing and social documentation. Three of the characters work at a television station; another three are activist protesters, one is an engineer, one a psychologist. One maintains a blog; one has plans for a photo exhibition (and possibly a book); all their lives closely intersect – a subtle point given through the staging of the local morning show and the way in which it demonstrates an intimate interconnection between public and private spheres. The deeply tragic and personal story that the couple shares (filtered as it is through local media) functions allegorically for Iceland itself on the world (read: American financial) stage.

Indeed, the title itself points to a state of shock in the wake of unforeseen events. A “mishap” connotes not just any sort of accident, but a particularly unfortunate, untimely and even unjust one. There were many financial casualties of the crash in 2008, but the plummeting home values within the United States could hardly be compared to the sort of fallout that hit Iceland: within 2 months of the crash, the value of its currency had dropped in half, its stock market had plunged by 90% and all three of its private banks had gone into receivership. But, one might point out, prior to the collapse, Iceland had also loosened its mortgage rules and household debt as a portion of annual income was about 200% higher than it had been in 1980 – figures very comparable to those in the United States. So where does the responsibility lie?

This is a question asked several times in MISHAP!, but wrapped up in a complicated series of negotiations between the Teachers’ Union, the Board of Education and the Ministry of Education that failed to prevent a strike which left children out of school. Sarah Nelson gives an impressively memorable performance as Rósa, a senior reporter all too familiar with such stories, who’s since turned to blogging as a more rewarding or entertaining medium for meaningful, political communication. One of her most active readers is Sverrir, her ex-husband and host of the cooking show portion of the morning show they both work for. In this small world, everyone is either a celebrity of sorts or someone who documents or produces it – or both. Sverrir, who emotes a tireless and saccharine zeal thanks to the energy of Joe Giovannetti, has become famous for his chicken broth – attracting the praises of an anti-war protester (played by Kirstin Franklin, whose fervent and impassioned demonstration is surely one of the highlights of the performance) and the interest of an environmental activist/aspiring writer (a congenial, lively Marcos Litwicki), who takes notes on the recipe after making noble pleas for the documentary conservation of Iceland’s culture and ecology. He then makes an abrupt exit, admitting that “he never meant to make an appearance;” a cleverly implicit acknowledgment of the diegetic and spectatorial theatricality of the situation.

A more explicit and poignant criticism of power structures that speak for us is revealed in an emotional confession by the morning show’s co-host Brynja (portrayed with effortless brilliance by Breahan Eve Pautsch), whose camera-ready persona dissolves with the help of some wine during a chat with her colleagues on a commercial break. She’s especially morally concerned, after having already survived significant personal struggles, about facing yet another one in which it seems “we’ve all made this agreement to be assholes.” These angst-ridden deliberations continue the detours into self-reflection in the form of therapeutic advice that a sexually frustrated psychologist, Daniel (Joshua Harris) offers following a reenactment (scripted by the co-hosts) of his first meeting with Jóhanna, the wife of his old friend Halldór (played with sustained intensity by Matthew Isler). In this intriguingly self-reflexive rehearsal, Sverrir directs Daniel’s reading of lines from his own past, while Daniel directs Jóhanna’s retelling of a suicidal episode she experienced. In each case, someone else effectively speaks for the other, who internalizes this outside commentary. If this speaking-for-the-other dominates, however, it does so in place of the near inability to properly speak on one’s own behalf: when asked “what happened?,” Jóhanna (to whom Bergen Anderson brings an appropriately impassive, unreadable demeanor) replies, “I can’t talk about it.”

Which invites us to see that in rehearsing, retelling and remembering, these characters reclaim their power from events that caught each of them unawares. Until something can be properly articulated, perhaps, nothing can be done about it; so it matters that we get the story right. Daniel advises that “Jóhanna should listen to her own inner self, that’s what we all should do,” but these characters suffer from a gap between listening and speaking, between witnessing and remembering or keeping an account. There’s something here about the work of memory as a re-thinking or re-staging of events we were subjected to, or were forced to cooperate with, as we received them in some foreign order that later we rearrange and make intelligible, legible to ourselves – a kind of original moral authorship that enables action.

Halldór finally achieves this, moving past the point where Jóhanna got stuck – and where before, he sat with her on the edge of the bed, slouched over and in pains to remember, he now stands with her in confidence, directly facing the audience – and with a new attitude and posture appropriate to someone being interviewed for an investigative documentary, affirms: “I’ll tell the f----’ story everyone’s been waiting for.”

Indeed. There is much more to this story – but you really ought to see it and put it together yourself (then read this interview with the cast and crew: Staging the Nordic Imaginary). With its delightfully avant-garde twists on the temporal and spatial requirements of staging and set design, MISHAP! embodies the spirit of cinematographic modernism to create a rewarding, self-aware spectacle that reflects on the presence of media in our lives. And with so many North American and English-language premieres of contemporary Nordic drama already under its belt, Akvavit Theatre and its members will not stay under the radar for long. See MISHAP! now, and be sure to follow Akvavit on Facebook for updates on future productions and news on everything Nordic. MISHAP! runs February 20 through March 23, 2014 at The Side Project, 1439 W. Jarvis Ave., Chicago.

Shannon Foskett
Chicago, IL