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Mark Taper Forum looks at US immigrants past and present

Poor Miss Liberty. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the nation's culture without encountering another icon of the lady with the lamp, the Mark Taper Forum has dished up what must surely be her theatrical debut.

When the giant crowned head rolls on stage at the end of the second act of ``Green Card,'' the most recent work by director JoAnne Akalaitis, this national totem provides one of the most striking images in a highly visual production. Unfortunately, it also demonstrates the production's nearly fatal flaw -- the accretion of politicized pop culture, which is no substitute for dramatic exposition.

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Now in its world premi`ere at the Taper, Los Angeles's leading regional theater, ``Green Card'' represents Ms. Akalaitis's return to the stage as a writer as well as director. It is also the culmination of a two-year collaboration between Akalaitis and the Taper, which, under Gordon Davidson's artistic direction, has launched several socially conscious dramas over the years, including ``Zoot Suit,'' ``In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer,'' and ``Children of a Lesser God.''

Akalaitis, a founding member of New York's experimental Mabou Mines theater troupe, is one of the country's most respected, if controversial, avant-garde directors. Two years ago her version of Samuel Beckett's ``Endgame'' at the American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge, Mass. -- set in a subway tunnel after nuclear conflagration -- elicited threats of a lawsuit from the Nobel Prize-winning author.

Now the opening of ``Green Card,'' a sprawling exploration of the immigrant past and present of the United States, furthers the director's primary theatrical concerns -- politics and experimental aesthetics. But the production also demonstrates Akalaitis's weaknesses as a writer. The energetic eclecticism that so distinguishes her work as a director of classic texts, most recently in the ART's production of Jean Genet's ``The Balcony,'' is structurally unfocused in this latest endeavor.

``Green Card,'' the first play she has written since ``Dead End Kids'' opened in New York six years ago, which was also staged by the Taper in 1984, was commissioned by the Taper as a look at the ethnic identity of this nation, and specifically Los Angeles. Where Akalaitis's earlier work probed the challenges of a nuclear future, ``Green Card'' looks at the country's multifarious past. Both works, however, suffer from a lack of dramatic coherence.

The director's usual marriage of text, acting, and scenic design stumbles here on a text that is a pastiche of pop culture and poetry, personal soliloquy, and political syllogism. What begins with 19th-century New York and its Jewish refugees gives way to the Los Angeles of today with its immigrant Hispanic and Asian populations.

Along the way the common denominator becomes Hawaiian shirts and Ray Bans, hot tubs and TV's Robin Leach. ``The Jew, like any American,'' says one character, ``is appreciated when he lives within the American social system.''

Under Akalaitis's occasionally didactic hand, the entertaiment value hangs heavily on the politics. And while Douglas Stein's set is wonderfully malleable, moving easily from an immigration office waiting room to a TV studio to a L.A. boardwalk, Akalaitis's thematic premise is not nearly so sound. The associative leap from the country's immigrant experience in Act I to the recent wars in Southeast Asia and Central America in Act II is the most tenuous of links. And it is one made no more plausible by Akalaitis's plethora of directorial techniques.

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Even before the 11-member company, which is one of the chief strengths of the production, begins its whispered entrance as wetbacks, sweatshop workers, boat people, and turn-of-the-century refugees, one catches on to the director's collage approach in the program. Under the general heading of ``Sequence,'' particulars of the immigrant experience -- custom's officers, an Ellis Island tour guide, an interviewer of boat people -- are listed.

This is theater by television image, staged in an equally scattershot form -- here a burlesqued game show, there a shrill TV preacher, here the hushed reportage of torture victims, there the raucous sarcasm of a Lenny Bruce-like nightclub performer -- that only compounds the discontinuity.

This may be Akalaitis's intent -- assimilation by accumulation. Yesterday's Ellis Island is today's El Centro detention center. But it is not enough to sketch in the sensory surface, even when so grandiloquently staged with Stein's pop-up palms, film footage of the fall of Saigon, and the ubiquitous Miss Liberty, albeit with a new wrinkle in her brow. Akalaitis's directorial resistance to facile final statements is laudable, especially in the face of such an immense subject, but her aversion to narrative flow and her questionable thematic syllogism are frustrating.

This is all the more evident when, after an hour or so of eye-catching theatricality, Akalaitis puts on stage solo actors who describe their lives as detained aliens (``It's 110 degrees, and there is only one phone'') and a Hispanic cleaning lady (``I make the beds with two sheets that match''). Only then does this nation's varied identity strike with something more than media-image voyeurism.

The acting talents of Jesse Borrego, Alma Martinez, and the rest of the impressive cast go a long way toward furthering this all-too-infrequent revelation. At the Taper through July 13.

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