At La Mama, striking, humane story . . . about a robot; Also, a revival of Sam Shepard's 'The Unseen Hand' flourishes Off Broadway
New York — A.M./A.M.--The Articulated Man
Theater piece by Ping Chong and the Fiji Theater Company.
The creature called ''A.M.'' seems to be a sort of robot, or android, full of existential questions.
He wants to learn about the world and understand his own nature, but he's stuck in a hotel room, which doesn't offer much in the way of experience. Meanwhile, the authorities--whoever they are--want to catch him and switch him off. Caught between inner needs and outer dangers, he's in quite a predicament.
Described in these terms, the Fiji Company's new show sounds science-fictional. And it is, but only to a point. Whole sections of it dwell on mundane matters, including moody scenes of New York City, artfully caught on film.
Other sequences--the dominant scenes, in fact--are wholly expressionistic, in the manner of today's most radical theater work. Images flow across the stage according to their own rules, evoking but never stating the play's themes of loneliness, the need for love, and the fatally icy beauty of life in a technocratic age.
As created and directed by Ping Chong, with typically dazzling music by Meredith Monk, the multimedia ''A.M./A.M.--The Articulated Man'' is a bit of a technological feat in itself. It opens and closes with a black-and-white film on a large screen, while its ''live'' portions are punctuated with offstage noises, disembodied voices, slides, flashing lights, and other devices, all flawlessly blended with the action.
Yet despite this, and despite the whitewashed flatness of the futuristic set, the show seems wholly human--and humane--in its concerns. From the Biblical quotations at the beginning to the grim humor near the end, ''A.M./A.M.'' balances its bleak view of the future with reminders of the resources that have already helped mankind survive a pretty long trek on its small planet.
Whether they are unwitting or purposeful, these reminders lend hopefulness and heartiness to a show that might otherwise seem as sterile as it is streamlined. Except for a few sections that drag on too long and a number of metaphors that are much too obvious, the production is visually rich, theatrically imaginative, and entertaining in the bargain.
''A.M./A.M.'' is running at La Mama, where activity is bustling, as usual. Indeed, one recent production has bustled right off the La Mama stage and into another theater, the Provincetown Playhouse, where it has hunkered down for an extended Off Broadway run.
The play is ''The Unseen Hand'' by Sam Shepard, directed by Tony Barsha. This is a strange one, even by Shepard standards: An old derelict, living in a wrecked car, is visited by a traveler from another galaxy. And that's just the beginning. Soon the spaceperson has resurrected the old man's brothers--bad guys from the wild West--and mobilized them for an attack on the dictators of the distant galaxy. There's also a foul-mouthed high-school student who wanders onstage for a couple of scenes.
As in other Shepard work, the language is extravagant, sometimes vulgar, and not always clearly under control by the playwright. The inventiveness of ''The Unseen Hand'' is constant, though, and its humor is often piercing. While not for all tastes, it's worth another look 13 years after its original La Mama production.
''The Unseen Hand'' has been brought back as part of La Mama's recently concluded festival of revivals, celebrating the theater's 20th anniversary. Other recent events in the series included: a resuscitation of ''Godspell,'' which seems more arch and coy than it used to, despite a good cast including Melanie Mayron, and a cheerful romp through ''The Richest Girl in the World Finds Happiness,'' a play by Robert Patrick that's as silly and winning as it sounds.
Less appealing were ''Soon Jack November'' by Sharon Thie, a charmless comedy about three friends in a restaurant, and ''XXXXX'' by William M. Hoffman, a confused pastiche on religious dogmas and rituals, energetically mounted by John Vaccaro and his Playhouse of the Ridiculous company. ''Love Me or I'll Kill You, '' written and directed by Daniel Haben Clark, was a total loser with its nasty farce about a married couple. By contrast, ''The Rimers of Eldritch'' by Lanford Wilson (now a recognized Broadway talent) still looked good with its portrait of small-town life, acted by a large cast including the gifted Paula Trueman. And the raucous ''Motel'' by Jean-Claude van Itallie still packs a nasty kind of wallop.
Now playing at La Mama: the latest work by Joseph Chaikin and the Winter Project, called ''Trespassing.''