Tuesday, March 8, 2011:Ship of Fools

A 21st century audience reacts to a 15th century show

Kapow! The man breaks through the face of the clock, climbing carefully through the broken pieces. (Fortunately, the clock is made of parchment.)

Then, a middle-aged man climbs carefully up the ladder. He stretches over and sits on top of the chimney.

In the meantime, the ex-architecture student, dressed in a felt hat like blue and yellow dredlocks, beats a snare drum, shouting.

Next comes a young woman playing a brittle violin, followed by some children in pointy ski caps.

What’s going on here? Are these escapees from a lunatic asylum?

No, it’s simply the Ludus Musicus cast entering the estate hall in the small town of Dobřichovice near Prague. Their performance of Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant, from the year 1494, is just beginning — to the absolute delight of the 21st century audience ranged along the walls, still snuggled in their overcoats against the early March chill. (After all, the ceramic fireplace chimney is blocked by the narrator sitting on top of it, even though a medieval page pushes his dangling foot, slowly rotating him to face all parts of the room, like a one-man theatre-in-the-round.)

František Běhounek (second from left) and the Ludus Musicus troupe in Ship of Fools (Sebastian Brant, 1494)

Actually, the mixed-voiced vocal-instrumental chamber ensemble Ludus Musicus has been performing serious liturgical music for many years, its director, music teacher František Běhounek tells Opus Osm. Composed half of professional musicians and half of enthusiastic amateurs, it brings live Medieval and Renaissance music and performance not only to sit-down concerts, but also to historical re-enactments, fairs, and festivals.

The group plays copies of period instruments, including the antique zither, lyre, lutes, drums, and an assortment of small bells, horns, and other hand-sized percussion instruments.

But just now the juggler, Vítek Procházka, is casually tossing three meat cleavers into the air — and juggling them. He dropped out of a university architecture program to become a street performer, juggling apples, walking on stilts, and making kids laugh. It’s a job which seems to suit him perfectly.

“Medieval songs were very simple,” Mr Běhounek explains, “so we need to have someone good in performance art [like Mr Procházka] to keep the audience entertained.” He continues, “Also, the instruments were much quieter, and we have to switch them around to make it interesting,” he says. Their program today alternates narration with folk and instrumental songs. And plenty of juggling.

Although only 10 singers and musicians are appearing today, Ludus Musicus also performs with up to 40 or 50 people, especially when they do liturgical music, their specialty. “For bigger events we ask others to join us as guests,” he says, “and for really big events we ask professional soloists, such as singers from the National Theatre.”

Ludus Musicus is planning just such a program for Good Friday and Easter Sunday this year, Mr Běhounek says. There probably won’t be any juggling, but the music should be awe-inspiring, nonetheless. oo

–Mary Matz

Photo Credits: Miroslav Setnička

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