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A few fascinating strides in 'new music,' 'minimal art'; Sister Suzie Cinema A Prelude to Death in Venice'

Theater pieces by Mabou Mines. Presented at the New York Shakespeare Festival Public/Old Prop Shop Theater. These brief pieces reflect the influence of "minimal art." "Sister Suzie Cinema" is very short (running about 20 minutes) and consists largely of doo-wop-style rock'n'roll sung on the wing of a jet plane. The more substantial of the two, "A Prelude to Death in Venice," lasts less than an hour, and is virtually a one-man show -- not counting a second performer who is seen only as a dim reflection, and a wooden dummy, which is the most visible star of the evening.

It sounds evanescent, whimsical. Yet Lee Breuer, honcho of Mabou Mines, extracts maximum meaning from these minimal conceits.

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"Sister Suzie Cinema" is a lavishly mounted trifle. It would be forgettable if it weren't such a delicious trifle, especially for those who grew up with the movies and 1950s rhythm-and-blues ringing in their eyes and ears.

A gifted group called Fourteen Karat Soul sings a series of early-rock-type tunes (sample lyric: "On this night flight/Be my bright light") while perched on the slowly rising wing of an airplane. Projections, multicolored spotlights, and even a laser punctuate the show, giving it the unpredictable resonance of a musical dream. Seen at an early performance, the presentation needed tightening , and Breuer's "poetic" script had (again) a few too many senseless asides. But if memories of sidewalk songsters, Saturday matinees, and young love are part of your personal nostalgia craze, you could do worse than invest 20 minutes in the soulful "Sister Suzie Cinema."

"A Prelude to Death in Venice" challenges Western civilization to single combat and wrestles it to a draw.

The main character is a ventriloquist's dummy named John, brilliantly manipulated by Bill Raymond, who modestly -- and ingeniously -- keeps his own presence almost entirely masked throughout his long stint on the almost-bare stage. In front of John/Raymond is a rough embankment; to each side is a pay telephone. It looks like the setting for a Samuel Beckett play, and Breuer's wordy script also has a Beckett quality, full of puns and verbal games.

The action revolves around John's simultaneous conversations with various people, including his mother and his answering service. John is a painfully recognizable modern type, a wheeler-dealer who initiates lots of conversations at once so he can enhance his own importance without really committing himself to any of his interlocutors. He's a neurotic sort of dummy, but a magically funny one, too -- capable of charging a long-distance call to the local police precinct, and playing a Bach masterpiece on the Touch-Tone buttons of his phone.

Like many other experimental theater pieces of recent years, "A Prelude to Death in Venice" is at its weakest when it deals most openly in words. Breuer's script is diffuse, touching on many aspects of contemporary decadence, yet plumbing none of them. Parts of it are pointless, overdrawn, or simply vulgar. If it doesn't win its war against Western decline, though, it certainly points the way to a whole new theatrical examination of the problem. In its utterly original stagecraft, and in Raymond's virtuosic performance, it is a memorable and stimulating experience.

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