Shortly before waking up, the nightly dreams are sometimes particularly intense and confused. When perception slowly turns outwards and absorbs elements from real life – often in a completely different constellation. This may be irritating or even disturbing for a brief moment.
Comic artist Nick Drnaso plays with this special dream experience in his latest graphic novel “Acting Class”. (from the American version by Karen Köhler and Daniel Beskos, Blumenbar, 268 p., €28).
Uncomfortable and oppressive – this is probably the best way to describe the atmosphere that permeates this work from the first to the last page. The atmosphere is special and similarly dominated in his previous graphic novel “Sabrina”, which was the first comic to be nominated for the renowned Man Booker Prize in 2018.
Little by little the game becomes serious
While “Sabrina” is about the disappearance and horrific murder of a young woman, which gives rise to crude conspiracy theories in society, the subject of “Acting Class” is completely different.
Ten men and women meet in an acting course. They all have in common that they are looking for something, that they want to give their life a new direction. Or just want to get out of isolation. In some scenes, the participants can first be seen in their everyday lives.
There are already indications that many of them are difficult, sometimes problematic personalities. A couple wants to give their relationship new impetus, another participant suffers from a mental disorder. It is later learned from another that he molested a neighbor’s child as a teenager.
The first short acting exercises seem quite harmless. Gradually, the game becomes more and more in-depth and the confrontation with different roles more intense. At some point there are small incidents, very subtle at first, that cause irritation. Is this reality? Or part of the game?
faces like masks
It is precisely this uncertainty that accompanies the action and is the cause of a constant uneasiness. In imagination exercises, the participants penetrate into their innermost being and are confronted with previously hidden sides of their personality.
Acting teacher John, whose intention is difficult to interpret, pulls the strings. And despite all the professionalism, it doesn’t seem very trustworthy at times.
In ever longer improvisations they meet in different roles. The boundaries between reality and imagination are increasingly blurring. Not only for themselves, but also for the readers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see where the game ends and reality begins. The narrative levels can hardly be separated.
This complexity accounts for the enormous attraction of this complex and fascinating story. The reading unfolds a pull that one can hardly escape.
With his idiosyncratic drawing style, Drnaso does a great job of conveying the cold, dark atmosphere that prevails in the comic. Accurately drawn geometric lines create a sterile and desolate setting.
This is particularly noticeable in the room architecture. The rooms are narrow or long and have oppressively low ceilings. In it, the figures appear delivered. Or they find themselves in deserted and deserted areas.
The reduced faces of the figures appear like masks. Everything is mostly designed in dark and matt colors. Due to the seemingly mechanical uniformity, a feeling of insecurity, partly also of the subliminal threat, emerges all the more strongly.
The fact that the plot progresses at a leisurely pace for the most part also creates a special tension. Drnaso is in no hurry. He plays the scenes step by step and goes deep into the individual acting exercises. In small actions he shows how the characters change.
There are no explanations or comments, only the dialogues. Again and again, the readers have to reorient themselves, because with almost every scene you are catapulted to a new place – somewhere between real life, fantasy and the abysses of the soul.
As in a river, the scene of one flows into that of the other, the figures meet in new constellations. Everything seems disturbingly real, many things have fascinating Kafkaesque traits. The characters are increasingly drawn into a whirlpool of imagination and sometimes nightmarish events.
It is absolutely amazing how Drnaso manages to conceive such a complex dramaturgy without losing the thread. As masterly as a skilled marionette player, he knows how to master and bring together the various narrative threads. And so to lead his protagonists more and more into a bizarre, surreal world – from which there may be no more awakening.