Words onstage are weaklings. Consider the way music so easily overpowers its libretto in opera. Or the way multimedia images in avant-garde performance or gestures in more traditional drama speak volumes without uttering a syllable. Yet language provides our deepest vein of meaning. Only in the abstraction of the symphony or ballet are we truly liberated into a world beyond linguistic consciousness, and even then we run a silent commentary to ourselves about what we’re experiencing. In experimental theater, the balance between text and stagecraft is a precarious one. New forms of storytelling aspire to treat the word as merely another part of the mise-en-scène. Artaud’s injunction to “burn the texts” wasn’t so much trying to banish language as to return us to a forgotten mode of ritual. Paradoxically, he advocated ransacking the resources of Jacobean and Romantic dramatists to get there. Poetry, in short, led to the metaphysical heart of his theater of cruelty, suggesting that, even in the most extreme nonliterary of visions, logos—or the vehicle for rational understanding—demands an integrated place in the nonverbal scheme.
Mabou Mines has a long history of formulating theatrical language from an interdisciplinary mélange. Dance, music, drama, cartoons, puppetry—all contribute to a unique brew that’s ultimately concerned less with digestible narrative than visionary experience. The company’s latest work, Cara Lucia (Here), takes up the subject of James Joyce’s schizophrenic daughter, though not (naturally enough) by traditional biographical means. What’s at stake is the flame of a rattled yet brilliant mind and the way in which that flickering light has been interpreted and thus, in one way or another, falsified.
Ruth Maleczech plays Lucia, age 69, confined to a psychiatric ward. Wearing a pistachio-colored dress and mink stole, she sits in a chair that elevates with the mad freedom of her character’s thoughts. Facts morph into fragmentary fantasy as Old Lucia reviews a life spent largely in mental institutions. She memorializes her many suitors, including former sweetheart Samuel Beckett. Intermittently, she frets about having enough money from her father’s estate to maintain herself in her waning days. Across the stage, Clove Galilee, tethered like a wayward dog, portrays the young Lucia striving to be worthy of her genius father while garrulously preoccupied with her (doomed) romantic prospects. Closeted away is Rosemary Fine as Issy, the Lucia-like figure from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, who reads passages from the puzzling poetic stew and occasionally emerges from her hiding place to mock her real-life model.
The treatment is circular rather than linear, with little concern for narrative exposition. Written and directed by Sharon Fogarty, the 80-minute piece constructs a three-dimensional collage with help from Jim Clayburgh’s fluid sets and lighting and Carter Burwell’s elegiac score. The words, which exist on equal terms with the individual design elements, are not to be systematically assimilated into a coherent story. Like the rainy seascape imagery ingeniously created by Julie Archer’s video sorcery, the piece is meant to wash over you with the flux of its delicate insights. Maleczech anchors the production in unwieldy human truth, refusing to straitjacket Lucia with one of the diagnoses proffered by the nurses and academics who cartoonishly file their reductionist opinions on video. In the actor’s physical obduracy and irrepressible theatrical autonomy lies the inarticulatable meaning of a woman who could not stay afloat in the surrounding ocean of ordered words.
The International WOW Company’s production of A Girl of 16 (LaTea Theatre) is notable more for the liberated promise of the artists involved than for the work’s final realization. Written and directed by Aya Ogawa, the piece is inspired by Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Beauty and Sadness, and much of its delight comes from the dreamlike theatrical distillations of this twisted love story. The trouble, however, rests in Ogawa’s indebtedness to her source material, which keeps her from concentrating her stage vision. Her text sprawls to diminishing lyrical effect, never quite arriving at the uncanny place it desperately seems be searching for and getting lost in surreal excesses.
The tale, too complicated for instant recap, involves the fallout from a disastrous love affair between a young girl and a married writer whose best book fictionalizes the saga of their relationship. Suffice it to say that the work suggests a postmodern version of Thérèse Raquin in its murderous mix of multigenerational epic and Freudian parody. History, at least in Ogawa’s version of Kawabata, repeats as both tragedy and farce.
The talented young ensemble is divided between actual characters and a murmuring chorus of masked actors (some dressed like bunraku puppeteers in black garb, others completely nude). Erika Hildebrandt plays the girl of 16 as an adult painter with a sturdy maturity that hints at a turbulent past. Far more stylized in her performance is Magin Schantz, who portrays (with at times delirious hyperactivity) the teenage art student who becomes obsessed with the story of her mentor’s catastrophic romance, and plots to take revenge. Dario Tangelson lends an unusual sensitivity to writer Hugo Grey’s literary and sexual exploitations, while Peter Lettre effectively embodies the conflicted nature of his oedipally challenged son.
Though Ogawa has yet to master Mabou Mines’s intuitive equilibrium between words and images, the richness of her freewheeling theatrical vocabulary (drawn from a variety of cultures and genres) suggests more provocative stage compositions ahead.