02 February 2008


Last evening I had the pleasure of seeing a fine example of free street theatre, a dazzling spettacolo ("spectacle") called “Incontri” in Campo San Giacomo dall’Orio. (Venetian readers, you can still catch it for the next two nights.) Incontri means “encounters.” How shall I describe it?

A circle of sand like a small beach in the campo, surrounded by burning smudgepots, a tall gateway, two bare stick tepee structures supporting wasp nest lanterns of glittering orange sparks and embers, a few chairs, some ominous charred props, some haunting, evocative music, and six individuals (each a skilled acrobat and mime) encountering one another in the most emotional ways, all the while playing boldly with – or being terrorized by – fire. The gateway’s curtain burned away in a burst of flame and onto the beach they came…

Many brief human dramas were played out on this smoky patch of sand, and, at very close range, the fiery element magnified each. The idea that we “play with fire” when we deal with others, the temptation to do that and its mesmerizing effect on us, never seemed so clear, so dangerous, and yet so enticing to this onlooker. (Not surprising. I myself have been playing with fire lately: I have the emotional blisters to show for it.)

There were dances and duels, cruelty and empathy, threats and seductions, courtship and war, betrayals and redemptions, loss and triumph, glory and humiliation, all in the glow of fire being tossed from bare hand to bare hand, dancing wildly through the dark night on invisible strings, or sparkling and spurting from buckets and boxes, hats and boots, spears and swords.

How can anyone approach a woman when she wears a wide skirt of flames? What can possibly be said to a man who fashions a burning halo for himself, but is invisible from the neck down? Who wouldn’t run from giant, fiery hands that threaten to restrain and crush? These metaphors and others were made visible, vivid, in the pure, glaring firelight.

I was aware that the show struck all my senses. First I saw the hot gleam and I heard the crisp crackle of the fire, then I felt its dangerous warmth and smelled its sharp scent, and finally I tasted its acrid smoke in my mouth and throat. I even brought a little of that smoke home with me on my coat. Here it is beside me, reminding me of a truly memorable hour of Carnevale street magic on a cold Venetian night.