stage review

‘Lebensraum’ challenges, inspires audience

Yannick Greweldinger, Reinier Schimmel, and Silke Hundertmark on the Emerson stage.
Yannick Greweldinger, Reinier Schimmel, and Silke Hundertmark on the Emerson stage. Stephan van Hesteren

Two isolated inventors wake up in their funhouse of an apartment and build a lifesize female robot to do their chores. But this animatronic maid develops a mind of her own, and her presence provokes jealousy between the inventors, who open her up for repairs.

That is the scenario explored silent-film style, with acrobatic energy and boggling stagecraft, in Jakop Ahlbom’s “Lebensraum (Habitat),” presented by ArtsEmerson on the Paramount Center Mainstage through Sunday. But the sometimes dazzling antics are accompanied by a strange unease.

Especially early on, “Lebensraum (Habitat),” invokes the sweet vulnerability of early Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and other silent comedians, amid elaborate physical comedy and Rube Goldberg-style contraptions.


In matching clothes and low-key whiteface, actors Reinier Schimmel and Yannick Greweldinger are deft performers, whether working an old gag with a step ladder or new ones that have them diving through walls and disappearing into furniture.

The set, by Yuri Schreuders and Ahlbom, is a marvel, with hidden openings and secret passages and a Murphy bed that turns into a piano. The back of it must look like a Habitrail, as performers disappear here and reappear over there. Occasionally it gets surreal. There is no blunter symbol in the show than when one of them dives right through a picture on the wall — a picture of Keaton.

“Lebensraum (Habitat)” is also deeply weird in a way that calls to mind the work of David Lynch. Where the silent comedians usually played overwhelmed innocents surviving and even triumphing against the odds, these two inventors are just odd, their life insular and abstract.

Dolls that come to life are creepy anyway, but the female here is treated as both disposable and unstoppable. Silke Hundertmark plays the red-headed doll after it comes to life, and her performance best expresses the show’s double nature, combining Raggedy Ann cuteness with the implacability of a Terminator. No matter what shape these guys fold her into, she just keeps on coming, her smile unchanged.


But wait, there is more. Leonard Lucieer and Ralph Mulder of the rock band Alamo Race Track are also on stage, wearing that same makeup and suits that match the complicated wallpaper, playing a live soundtrack on electric guitars and other instruments and singing the show’s only words.

At times their presences make the show look like some weird new wave video, not that there is anything wrong with that.

(However, the show could have done without the monitors and lights lined across the front of the stage, which punctured the set’s illusion a bit.)

Swedish-born Ahlbom has long worked in the Netherlands. “Lebensraum (Habitat)” is yet another unclassifiable piece of international theater that probably would not have made it to Boston without ArtsEmerson.

Many in Wednesday’s opening-night audience laughed fondly at the whimsical silent-film-style gags. But to judge by their expressions as the crowd flowed out after the roughly 70-minute performance, some ended up not knowing quite what to think.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com