Dazzling new forays into offbeat theater
John Jesurun is being hailed by critics and insiders as the hottest new trailblazer on the theater scene. True to his reputation for unconventional ideas, his new multimedia play, Deep Sleep, takes place on a stage that's part bowling alley, part twin cinema. The audience sits in rows at the La Mama annex beside a long, narrow space with movie screens hung at both ends. Between the screens is a large performing area where live action takes place, counterpointed by a pair of 16-mm films. With this setup, it's not surprising that the show turns out to be a potpourri of aesthetic and philosophical tugs of war: theater vs. cinema, reality vs. illusion, life vs. art
Conceptually, all of this is dazzling. The movie action ricochets from one screen to the other, while the live performers hover in the middle zone, occasionally mustering the courage to visit ``up there'' with film phantoms who variously help, threaten, tempt, and tantalize them.
Dramatically, the show isn't so strong. The story -- a psychological duel between real people and reel people, each group believing itself more authentic than the other -- has arbitrary twists dictated less by its own logic than by an eagerness to exploit the play's mixed-media possibilities. Similarly, the characters seem designed not as full-fledged individuals but as puppets (literally, in one case), twitching and jerking as the playwright almost visibly pulls their strings.
Still, it's clear from the ideas and methodology of ``Deep Sleep'' that writer-director Jesurun is a theatrical dreamer of great potential; and his vision is well served by at least some of the show's performances, including those of Michael Tighe (onstage) as a rock-and-roll chanter named Sparky, and Black-Eyed Susan (on-screen) as a two-dimensional mystery woman. ``Deep Sleep'' is having an extended run at La Mama. `Africanis Instructus'
Just as offbeat was the latest outing by Richard Foreman, a senior statesman of the Off and Off Off Broadway scenes. The recently closed ``Africanis Instructus'' found him collaborating once again with composer Stanley Silverman, who has provided scores for such previous works as the astonishing ``Elephant Steps'' and the obsessive ``Madame Adare,'' among others. Foreman's new play, set in ``real London and dream Africa at the turn of the century,'' continues his recent effort to tackle subjects charged with social consciousness. Until now, this attempt has resulted in nothing more scrutable than ``Miss Universal Happiness,'' a murky third-world fable, and ``The Birth of the Poet,'' a cryptofeminist muddle.
By contrast with those works, ``Africanis Instructus'' makes a certain amount of sense on terms other than Foreman's own self-absorbed aesthetics. Focusing on the built-in conflict between colonial oppression and the necessities of self-determination, the action deals with recognizable tensions between white and black societies, European and African cultures, ``civilized'' and ``primitive'' sensibilities. Foreman weaves these tensions into a plot that seems almost linear at times -- centering on the perils of Rhoda, the heroine -- and crowds the stage with surprising characters.
``Africanis Instructus'' remains a rousing display of characteristic Foremania, complete with bizarre poses, lights glaring at the audience, and songs with titles like ``The 19th Century Falls on Me Like Lead.'' But it's encouraging to see Foreman's concern with the outside world (outside his own teeming imagination, that is) bear some meaningful theatrical fruit. Performed by Eve Bennett-Gordon (as Rhoda) and an energetic supporting cast, his newest show was his best in years. It was presented onstage at St. Clement's by the Music-Theatre Group/Lenox Arts Center and Foreman's own Ontological-Hysteric Theatre.