Three French men work and live in a Beckettian coffee shop, with vague and unidentifiable borders and function. They make coffee and dance with elation at the sensual bliss it brings them. A tea bag is found, and horror and paranoia ensue. Every 15 minutes or so the Americans (or some English-speaking persons) call to check in on the men's status, only to be told that "everything is fine," and to take further coffee and bubble gum orders.

If Jo Strømgren Kompani's The Society were a dessert, it would be a cream pie with lots of cream and a thin, crisp graham cracker bottom.

The cream is the silliness—the slapstick, the flamboyant dancing, the Monty Python-esque accents, and the outrageous representations of race and culture that form the bulk of every bite of this consistently comical, engaging, and pleasant-to-watch production.

The graham cracker is the solid, ineluctable, yet unobtrusive exploration of patriotism and transgression, political and personal that forms the show's base.

One chunk of this graham-cracker crunch that stays lodged in my gums, unexplained, is the first dance of the play. Nearly all of the dances, dreamy combinations of tango, salsa and other ballroom forms mixed with fluid, hyperbolic modern dance, illustrate the intimacy, and eventual division, of the three men. They are comical, they are highly theatrical, and they involve fluid, hyper transferrals of energy and weight between the men, trust exercises and pratfalls.

Yet there is a singular moment just a minute or two after the curtain when a blue spot isolates one man, Philipe, and everything else goes dark. His hand is shaking. Soon his entire body goes into a convulsive, writhing quake, a wormy seizure of a dance which warps the body around itself, wracks the man with an aching ecstasy, then leaves him curled up and exhausted when the rest of the room lights back up.

This singular and disconnected moment could mean any number of things. Are the following events a dream? Is the man sick, somehow? Or rather, is it an uncompleted idea, a flaw of the show?

In the moment, the man is waiting for his next sip of coffee. The ecstasy of the caffeine injection is a well-elaborated-on theme throughout the play. Multiple times, the characters sip or smell coffee and go off into elaborate, elated cavortings. And later, once the pernicious tea bag has been discovered, they at turns are drawn toward the tea bag and the coffee, and even seem to exaggerate their dances in order to emphasize their allegiance to coffee-drinking Europeanism.

So this first dance could also be read as a depiction of one man's fiending dependence.

But the weight (and the blue light) given to this isolating moment suggests that there's more to it. A sip smell of freshly brewed coffee can send the trio into ecstasies, group celebrations of the drink's power. Once the tea bag appears, they each take turns being drawn towards it, then pulling one-another back into the group. Coffee and tea are emblematic of larger cultural wars. Coffee drinkers are "Europe" and tea drinkers are "Communist" or "Chinese." Inclusion being vital to everyone involved, what Jo Strømgren Kompani is exposing for us is a conflation of the public/patriotic and the chemical.

That strange, isolated moment of writhing very much resembled a kind of chemical overload. It could have been a spiritual or psychological or chemical withdrawal.

Philipe, alone in his chair, is experiencing an existential quake, a conflict of the spiritual against the political, which is in many ways central to the conflict among the members of this European Society. And this conflict with the self would occur whether or not the tea bag appeared at all—it is atmospheric, a subtle crack in the otherwise perfect-looking patina of their world. That blue spot illuminates a split between the men they choose to be and the men they are under the surface, a division between personal and political.


The Society ran from Sept. 6 - Sept. 8 at The Painted Bridge, 230 Vine Street, Philadelphia, PA, as a part of the FringeArts Presented Festival.