In Jakop Ahlbom’s “Lebensraum (Habitat),” inspired in part by Buster Keaton’s 1920 silent film short “The Scarecrow,” a life-size mechanical doll created by two cloistered inventors unleashes a tornado of madcap chaos inside their cramped living quarters. In this silent film-come-to-life, which blends mime, illusion, and acrobatics, the men have fashioned a curly haired robot to do their cooking, cleaning, and household chores. But the duo’s precisely ordered world quickly unravels as they lose all control over their malfunctioning maid when she develops a mind of her own.
As the lunacy unfolds, doors open and slam shut, and benches, paintings and even a suitcase devour characters whole. The men dive through windows and walls, while their female automaton gets flipped onto a table like a rag doll, tumbling onto the floor in a spectacular face-plant, before later becoming a whirling dervish of disaster. With the pratfalls and head-spinning slapstick becoming ever more frenzied, bodies collide and fall into a heap, mop buckets land on top of noggins, and broom handles menace foreheads.
But in “Lebensraum (Habitat),” which is presented by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Center Mainstage Wednesday through Sunday, the humor grows out of what Ahlbom sees as a melancholic, even tragic situation. So instead of simply inventing gags and comedic bits as they developed the show, Ahlbom and his performers approached the story and unfolding drama with earnestness and empathy.
“That helped us and saved the day, actually. Then it became funny, but on a totally new and different level,” Ahlbom says in a conversation over Skype from his home in Amsterdam. “To only make gags and try to start by making it funny, that was not working at all. So my aim was to make it more dramatic, and then the humor would follow. And it turns out to have a lot of humor in it, within the drama, within the poetry and the melancholic atmosphere.”
David Dower, director of artistic programs at ArtsEmerson, explains that Ahlbom’s approach is in keeping with the spirit of clowning. He cites the famous bit in Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” where the starving character cooks and then eats his own boot.
“It’s a moment that is comic, but it’s coming out of following the truth of this tramp who is so hungry and is looking and looking for a solution to his hunger, and he winds up eating his shoe,” Dower says. “Clowning is always at its best when it’s taking something all the way to its extreme, rather than when it’s starting from the idea of ‘Let’s be funny.’ ”
The first scene in “The Scarecrow” provided the starting point for Ahlbom’s “Lebensraum,” and the set is partly modeled on the room that the two men share in Keaton’s film. The action begins with the duo (Yannick Greweldinger and Reinier Schimmel) waking and sitting down to eat breakfast. Their living quarters are rigged with various Rube Goldberg-style contraptions. They push a wheeled breadbasket between them down a long table. Pulleys and wires hang from the ceiling with all manner of salt, pepper, condiments, and water bottles attached, and the men swing the items back and forth in precisely choreographed movement. After their meal, they transform the space into a working laboratory. A Murphy bed folds into the wall and becomes an upright piano. Household items and lab equipment are stashed in secret cupboards hidden behind paintings and furniture.
In “The Scarecrow” the men become embroiled in a heated love triangle over a woman, battling each other for her affections. But in Ahlbom’s story, the men start to quarrel over how best to control their robotic doll, whose increasingly maniacal servitude is both absurd and disarming. Before they realize it, they’ve turned against each other. The mounting mayhem is set to a wistful folk-pop score performed live by Dutch indie rockers Alamo Race Track. Their jangly, melancholic roundelays are intended to echo the tinkling piano sounds of many early silent films.
When Dower first saw “Lebensraum” performed in the Netherlands, he was initially drawn to the show’s whimsical qualities and the virtuosity of the performances.
“All three of the performers are doing work that requires enormous training and capability, and they’re making it look like pure play,” Dower says. “So on the surface, it’s total whimsy and inventiveness — to the point where the musicians are dressed to match the background wallpaper — but it also has this really present-tense, dark underbelly. As with as the best clowns and the best comics, it’s standing on weighty things.”
Several themes were percolating in Ahlbom’s mind while creating “Lebensraum,” including the dangers of technology and of men playing God, and the unshakable spirit of the individual against an often impersonal and controlling world.
“The robotic woman maybe has much stronger human feelings than the two human men,” Ahlbom says. “Sometimes real people can be very inhuman and maybe the things they create have a more human touch than what we would imagine. So I like to play with that idea of what is human, and what is nonhuman?”
Dower sees “Lebensraum” as a fable about the indomitable spirit of the individual as it confronts the expectations of family and society and tries to carve its own path. But with its German title (meaning “habitat” or “living space”) evoking the sinister Nazi ideology of territorial expansion, Dower agrees that something more disconcerting may be going on under the surface.
“You see this doll coming to life with a whole set of her own expectations, and they don’t meet the expectations of the ruling party in a way,” he says. “The people who have the power actually go so far as to operate to try to fix that. But she still overcomes it, and ultimately they fall in love with her.”
A native of Sweden, Ahlbom has lived in the Netherlands for the past 20 years since attending the Theatre School in Amsterdam, where he studied mime and physical theater. He and Silke Hundertmark, who plays the doll with robotic precision and a creepily mischievous smile, have been a couple since they were in school. They have two children.
With influences ranging from filmmakers David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Michel Gondry, and David Cronenberg to the innovative British physical theater group DV8, Ahlbom says that he’s always been drawn to art that pushes past the boundaries of everyday reality to explore the world of dreams and imagination.
“I try to dig into the psyche of behavior and visualize the subconscious of my characters on stage,” he says.
Ultimately, though, “Lebensraum” is about kicking back and having fun.
“I’m a big lover of theater in its biggest forms of expression — from dancing to circus to opera, and everything in between,” he says. “I like the idea that you can go and see something extraordinary that provides an escape from your daily life.”