A Frenchman and a Belgian have orchestrated some surprising acts of vandalism at Walker Art Center, with one person using a pickaxe to forcefully deconstruct the stage. But there’s no need to call the police on Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort.
The pair is a creative force who destroys existing things to build new ones. And in “Germinal,” their well-thought-out, highly structured and wryly funny production, they create understanding, levity and light.
While Goerger and Defoort deploy a pickaxe in “Germinal,” which opened Thursday as the final installment in the genre-bending Out There series, their 90-minute one-act is not to be confused with Emile Zola’s classic 1885 novel about striking coalminers.
Both are named for the spring month in the old Republican French calendar, and both use the idea of new growth as an organizing leitmotif. But the similarities end there. This “Germinal” asks big questions amid its deconstructive rubble, like: What is the meaning of existence, of consciousness, of life?
It does not wear its ontological preoccupations on its sleeve, however. You will not see or hear a peep about phenomenology, post-structuralism and semiotics — some of the theoretical frameworks that hold sway in the comparative literature departments at places like Berkeley and Yale and that also inform this show.
Instead, “Germinal” digs into metaphorical and metaphysical questions starting at the most basic level of communication. And the show does it with a dry sense of humor.
Playfulness is evident at the outset. As the lights slowly go down, we expect the action to start. Then the lights suddenly come back up, much brighter. The effect is like falling asleep and being jolted awake.
Eventually, we see four performers sitting on the floor, in liminal light, connected to electronic controllers through which they express themselves. We follow the action by reading their thoughts and silent conversations, projected onto wall panels (the show is delivered in French, English, German and some Japanese, translated through surtitles, as well as pre-lingual sounds).
Questions soon arise around equity and access — some speakers get prime panels for their posts while the words of others are projected onto a crimpled curtain that’s hard to read. Eventually, the characters gain vocal language and use images to communicate process in a progression of higher-order consciousness that leads to crunching guitar rock.
Heady ideas undergird “Germinal,” but they play out clearly in a show whose last image is of the performers sitting in a swamp carved out of the stage floor. It suggests the cradle of evolution and echoes the circular logic so often present in the world of critical inquiry.