Posted by Meg Peterson
Perched in a nearly full house at Lincoln Hall for Kassys’ KOMMER, I was thinking of my mother.
She lives in Helena, Montana, where she works in State Government Social Services, tends to three schnauzers, organizes the occasional fundraiser to cure cancer, watches the sun set with my father, and generally misses out on international theater. Several weeks ago, amidst Internet wandering to pick which TBA events to attend, I realized that the Dutch theater company Kassys would be in Helena a few days before coming to Portland.
“So, Mom…. I don’t know if you’ll like this thing. You might hate this thing. It’s called KOMMER, that’s Dutch for “sorrow”. I’d like it if you saw it, and I saw it, and… you know. We can talk about it.”
My viewing of KOMMER was turbulent. The cast shuffles, paces, and settles into chairs while they exchange the well-rehearsed patter of condolences. Phrases that you speak after someone’s passed away that are completely unavoidable.
“Are you okay? Sort of okay? Okay, considering the circumstances?”
While they speak, the actors’ bodies almost imperceptibly begin to change. They teeter, they fiddle. It seems as if they might hurl themselves off the stage at any moment. The audience can’t help but laugh at the hilarity of the herd slowly roving over the set, destroying plants, picking at tape, and allowing their bodies to act as emotive valves. The energy changes when a character, Liesbeth, flips out and violently kicks over a table. A REAL TABLE, with REAL GLASS, that smashes and cascades across the stage toward me, a quiet observer in the third row. I could get hurt. This lady is angry. At any moment, she might pick up one of those chairs and smash my jaw with it. And a minute ago I could hardly contain my laughter as she shredded a dead fern.
The scene progresses, but I am still jilted by the reality of Liesbeth’s anger. There are many moments when I’m still able to laugh, but the physicality of the grief is present.
A screen lowers, and the cast is there, again. Projected on the screen exactly as they are on stage — and after they bow and leave, they are themselves. They are actors after a play, going their separate ways. Alone is the imperative word as the film unfolds. Sorrow is still present after the stage production, if not more real in it’s banality of rushing off to work alone, drinking alone, eating alone, exercising alone, sleeping alone.
KOMMER left me feeling a little less alone in grief, a perfect illustration of a want that I had felt when a friend died; to swim to the bottom of a river, to fall down stairs, to let my body feel. Perhaps I’m part of a bummer generation, but dissecting sorrow feels natural. Cathartic.
And my Mom?
I give high marks to the 50% theater 50% film. My brain was divided similarly 50/50 – assessing my emotional response and thinking simultaneously how Meg would feel about it… Friday night in Helena, the Myrna Loy Theater less than half-full, most folks in their 50′s and older. I was accompanied by my friend, a 60 year-old therapist. I’m 56 – why denote ages? We’ve experienced more deaths and losses than most younger people – the cliche phrases associated with death have come from our own mouths and have been received by our own ears – so while we’re watching the play our memories of grieving people we’ve loved and lost are triggered by the words and actions on stage. My therapist friend and I didn’t enjoy the performance as much as I think you will. She said, “I didn’t see anything hilarious about it.”
And I can understand that, too.
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The morning after Kassys first night in Portland, they gave a workshop at PNCA. Present were four members of the cast: Mischa van Dullemen,Ton Heijligers, Ester Snelder, and Liesbeth Gritter — who is also the Director, and Mette van der Sijs, the coordinator and assistant director.
Kassys methods were discussed along with the develpment of KOMMER. The dialogue was quite casual, and I was very suprised to find that Kassys didn’t write the script with a narrative in mind. Gritter explained that the company begins with a state of being, or a idea, and then begins to study other people, as well as to improvise within the company. KOMMER began as a play intended to make the audience sad. It also sprung from watching soap operas, and lifting bits from reality TV.
This is the only show that Kassys has toured with in the US, but they’ve also played it in Holland and France — and find that audiences react in different ways, though they intend to play the piece the same no matter how the audience feels. The cast assured me that they’ve had even more conservative audiences than they did in Helena — and often the humor is culturally divided. Van Dullemen mused that an Australian friend of his had said that KOMMER wasn’t a play about sadness, but rather a play about people that don’t know how to express themselves. Kassys also agreed that the Portland audience was similar to a French audience in its readiness to laugh.
Translation also plays a tricky part in the production. The live performance was spoken in English, while the film portion was in Dutch with subtitles. Kassys performers are all native Dutch speakers that also speak French and English, but translating humor into smooth English sayings produces varied results. The cast agrees that the phrase, “Let’s take a walk around the block!” is hilarious. We English speakers find it common, but Dutch speakers find the near-rhyme silly, as well as the notion that one should take such a specific walk. Kassys was interested in the audience’s suggestions for taking a walk: an evening constitutional, a breath of fresh air, streching one’s legs…
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Kassys is that the actors that appear in the piece dictate the flow of the piece. KOMMER originally was written for four characters, but Gritter sook to create more age diversity, and added parts as new actors collaborated with the company. KOMMER has been performed for the past four years, as a new actor enters the piece, Kassys builds the character around themselves, in a way that echoes type-casting, but has more to do with each actors’ ideas in improve. The actors themselves molded the characters to fit within their own skin. I suppose that this practice is what moved me to fear Liesbeth, and to believe in the reality of each moment on stage, and even in the film.
In KOMMER everything feels real.
Even bingeing on green cotton candy whilst listening to an instrumental version of Danny Boy on your immaculate single bed. It’s sad, but how could I not laugh?
Ton Heijligers in still from KOMMER video. photo: Kassys

Ton Heijligers in still from KOMMER video. photo: Kassys