Germinal gets the first of its many laughs with a teasing lighting cue at the show’s very onset. The amusement continues for the next 90 minutes, as four performers (Arnaud Boulogne, Ondine Cloez, Halory Goerger, and Denis Robert) awake on a blank stage. Each is clutching a sound-mixing board, which provide their first key to unlocking a series of revelations about the strange little world they inhabit.
The show, created by the French Goerger and the Belgian Antoine Defoort, is like a combination between Five Characters in Search of an Exit and one of those puzzle rooms that you and your friends pay for the privilege of trying to escape. It’s playing through Saturday at the Walker Art Center as the concluding production of this year’s Out There series.
The performers here, though, are less concerned with finding an exit than they are with determining the terms of their existence. They have to figure out how to communicate, how to alter their environment, and ultimately how to bring meaning to their brief time on the stage that they so briefly inhabit. (Not that they know it’s a stage — this is one of the rare Out There shows in which the fourth wall remains intact.)
The nature of the scenario suggests a potentially heady metaphysical workout — the show’s description on the Walker’s website says it “asks how we would start the world from scratch if we had the opportunity to do so” — but first and foremost, Germinal is pure fun. By the time the performers are making silly sounds into a microphone they excavate from underneath the stage, it’s clear that any ontological musing will be taking a back seat to goofy shenanigans. Then, someone finds a guitar.
Germinal is an impressive technical achievement — not in the sophistication of its technology, but in the precise deployment of set elements (including, notably, projections) that have been carefully planned to yield seemingly spontaneous discovery. The audience at Thursday night’s performance occasionally broke into applause out of sheer delight at the glorious absurdity of it all.
By the end of the show, the characters have found a way to corral their experience into what they call a coherent series of events. Although the events themselves were shambling and seemingly random, they’re all the characters have to work with, and just before the show ends, they joyfully retell the story of the past hour-and-a-half.
As an allegory for Our Existence On This Mortal Plane, Germinal wears its existential baggage lightly. Let that be a lesson to us all.