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Two new works shown on avant-garde stages

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Two of Off Off Broadway's most adventurous artists, Richard Foreman and Ping Chong, are in top form with their newest plays. Foreman's offering, the unglamorously titled ``Symphony of Rats,'' finds this ambitious writer/director continuing his love affair with the Wooster Group, perhaps the only theater company with a vision as iconoclastic as Foreman's own. Its members collaborated with Foreman a few years ago on a partly successful pastiche called ``Miss Universal Happiness,'' which couched vague criticisms of American xenophobia in a burst of manic stagecraft that all but drowned whatever messages it had to offer.

Their new joint effort, ``Symphony of Rats,'' isn't all that clear about its messages, either. But it's as close as Foreman ever gets to a direct sociopolitical statement. The main character is the President of the United States, and he's been receiving communications from outer space that only he can hear. Is he crazy, or is he on to something? And if the communications are real, how can he tell if they're good or evil or something mere earthlings can't even pin a label on?

It's clear from Foreman's past work (mostly with the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, his own company) that he finds craziness and uncertainty in many aspects of American life, including the political sphere. What sets ``Symphony of Rats'' apart from his earlier plays is its comparative clarity. Foreman doesn't crowd the stage quite as relentlessly with eccentric actions by grotesque characters; the pace is a trifle more relaxed; and the action comes remarkably close to coalescing into a linear plot.

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