In “A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea,” the medieval archbishop William of Tyre recounts some grislier moments of the First Crusade. “I may not rehearse to you the feats of every man,” he writes. “But there was so much blood shed that the channels and gutters ran all with blood, and all the streets of the town were covered with dead men, in such a wise that it was great pity for to see.” Admittedly, the National Theater of the United States of America’s Abacus Black Strikes Now!: The Rampant Justice of Abacus Black (conveniently abbreviated ABSN: RJAB) offers less blood, fewer bodies, and rather an absence of pity, but proves barely less gory or absorbing.
Chad Montgomery (James Stanley), a foppishly dressed performer with a funereal air, hails the audience. “Welcome,” he gravely intones. “I know how dangerous it is out here. Especially at night. So I appreciate your coming out and meeting with us.” He coughs and tugs at his lace cuffs. “I’m sorry we had to charge you money.” Stanley entreats us to join with him on a campaign that surely everyone must approve of: the war against the zombie nation, those “violent, ravenous, monsters of the undead” who long to gorge on our tasty brains. And he has a surprise: Soon he’ll show us an actual crusader, the 600-year-old relic called Abacus Black, who claims to know the location of the long-fabled City of Gold.
Once Stanley has established the play’s outlandish premise and concerns, an electric guitar blares and other performers emerge from the shadow. They offer a twirling and stamping dance, replete with anomalous hand gestures, and whip off a blanket to reveal the components of an elegant proscenium stage, which they briskly assemble. The next hour offers a blur of scene changes, antic musical numbers, whirling silk, low-tech special effects, and the emphysemic pronouncements of Abacus himself (Ryan Bronz). The fairly coherent—if entirely peculiar—narrative devolves in the swirl of short scenes.
The National Theater of the United States of America (NTUSA), a collective of seven performer-designer-writers and occasional guests, bill themselves as “a true democracy, a uniquely collaborative effort.” In ABSN: RJAB, that makes for tremendous liveliness and devotion at all levels of the project, but a somewhat troubling lack of structure and progress. The design’s unequivocally gorgeous—from the hand-painted curtains, to the handheld lights, to the spawn-of–Edgar Allan Poe–and-syphilitic-cancan-dancer costumes—but the story and drive founder. And yet it seems unseemly to quibble over matters like coherence when NTUSA does provide a continually involving and surprising hour. They may not find the City of Gold or retake Jerusalem, and in fact they succumb rather cheerfully to that zombie threat, but ABSN: RJAB can still count itself much more successful than the average crusade.