Rarely in multimedia theater is the whole equal to (never mind greater than) the sum of its gadgets. What should amount to a collage of various modes of communication too often translates into a noisy contest between appliance and actor. Of course the exceptions make the multitude of failures seem worthwhile. Though few can compare with the Wooster Group’s cubist-style flair or Robert Lepage’s Matisse-like sense of beauty, the possibility of discovering one’s own innovative blend of three-dimensional expression has become the millennial rage of the Downtown scene. In fact, it could be argued that all alternative theater has been infected by the multimedia bug.
Two recent examples of the form include The Dean Street Field of Operation’s I Got Lost I and The Axis Theater’s Picture This. While each production strikes its own individual balance between video and sound technology and the old-fashioned art of acting, both illustrate the challenge of postmodern (i.e., fractured, polyphonic, ironically circular) storytelling. Simply put, how do you convey meaning on a multilayered canvas when part of your objective is to disrupt its flow?
Directors have been grappling with the question for the past few decades, seeking to find ways around the frustrating dichotomy between narrative-based and purely imagistic theater. Odd to look for the answer in the work of a 19th-century German playwright, but Friedrich Hebbel’s observation that “the whole secret of dramatic style is to present the necessary in the form of the accidental” seems to hold true for multimedia theater artists as well. The theory, however, is infinitely easier than the practice.
Necromancy is the subject of I Got Lost I, a visually enthralling if careening exploration of occult communication with the dead. At the center is a magician in whiteface who goes by the name of Painless Parker, a pointedly ironic nickname for someone whose specialty is facilitating other people’s early deaths. His mission is to capture in a test tube the eternal substance known as the soul (presented on stage as an elusive bolt of red electric current). This strange and mystical journey, however, is difficult to track, as an ensemble of ghoulish performers swirls disorientingly in and out of focus.
The piece claims to be inspired by a variety of sources, including W.H. Trowbridge’s Cagliostro, Houdini’s Writing on Magic, and Frazer’s Golden Bough. While these texts obviously fed the company’s ingenious scenic imagination, it’s not at all clear what they add up to. Tape-recorded lines like “A soul is a terrible thing to waste” and “Fate is no illusion at all” are interspersed throughout, but to little cumulative effect. In fact, it’s hard not to see this otherworldly mumbo-jumbo as merely a spur to creating incredibly provocative but essentially ad-hoc stage images.
For those willing to set aside the half-baked Outer Limits fantasy trip, there is an extraordinarily original mise-en-scène to behold. A giant swath of painted blue plastic becomes the roiling chaos of the ocean, from which a young woman futilely tries to escape. An array of hanging light bulbs eludes the pursuit of a pair of necromancers trying to capture the mysteriously mobile illumination. Dean Street’s audio, choreography, costumes, and film are not only dazzlingly well-
coordinated but unconsciously resonant as well. If only more thought had been given to the structure— to say nothing of the significance— of the whole.
Picture This, the Axis Theater’s inaugural production in the souped-up space once occupied by the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, was so mind-boggling the first time around that a second visit was required. The story revolves around Sally (Wren Arthur), a pill-popping woman of little sanity, who appears on an oversized video screen desperately attempting to extract from her consciousness her young brother’s accidental drowning.
The piece begins with the family lying face down in a pool of water, accompanied by the hysterical soundtrack of the daughter’s mumbling. “Picture the little girl,” she chants breathlessly, as mother, father, brother, and grandmother are raised by a set of hooks and winches. Their stylized behavior suggests they are the fictional manifestations of the daughter’s highly troubled recollection— although nothing is certain, not even the facts surrounding the fateful episode.
Television monitors reveal that Sally, who appears as a reporter on the news, is a serial killer, though what to make of this information is anyone’s guess. The main problem, however, is that the character’s personality is so fragmented and erratic that her story never engages us. Matters are made unnecessarily pretentious by Sally’s responses to queries from an unseen interviewer about the ontological nature of narrative art— a red flag that the creators themselves haven’t figured out how to convey in cogent theatrical terms their protagonist’s traumatic tale.
Given the relative youth of both multimedia companies, perhaps the productions should be viewed as promising aesthetics-in-progress. One can only hope that their technological innovations won’t continually outstrip the human impulse to communicate what has previously been impossible to convey.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 25, 1999