A decade later, `Quarry' still packs musical wallop

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Meredith Monk calls ``Quarry'' an opera, but its form is far from traditional. The music fades in and out as the main attraction. Heard live or through a small radio on the stage, it swoops and soars in the patented Monk style, a heady mixture of art-song discipline and anything-goes vocal exploration.

The three ``movements'' include many scenes, ranging from brief sketches of ordinary life to stylized suggestions of mental and emotional states. They flow into one another so softly and subtly that it's hard to say where the boundary lines are.

The mood is also hard to label. Some moments are as squally as the feverish child whose dreams -- symbolizing the nightmares of a nation -- are the show's connecting thread. Other moments are as calm and billowy as clouds that float miraculously across the stage.

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There is a clear message, though: a cry against the agony of war and totalitarianism, heralded by grinding airplanes that careen through the clouds and upset the everyday, life-goes-on rhythms established in the early scenes.

``Quarry'' was first performed in 1976 at La Mama annex -- the theater it was designed for -- and is now having a lively revival there, with several members of the original cast re-creating their roles. This production wraps up the festivities marking Monk's 20th anniversary as a performer -- a celebration that has spanned several months, bringing us her Carnegie Hall singing debut and a retrospective of her films and videos at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Of these events, ``Quarry'' comes closest to summing up Monk's talent, since it combines all the facets of her work in one stage event. The show includes singing, instrumental music, choreography, and film -- all of her own making -- along with performances by her entourage, the House, under her direction. If blame or praise are in order, she's definitely the one to receive it. Happily the call is mostly for praise, since ``Quarry'' still packs a wallop almost a decade after its debut.

As in other Monk works, the flow of events is not literal or linear. Ideas and attitudes are hinted or suggested rather than spelled out. While some too-obvious metaphors do creep in, the show works largely on an intuitive level. You may decode its meanings if you choose, but their artful ambiguity calls more for meditation than analysis. Despite the urgency of its antiwar statement, ``Quarry'' is a work of many possibilities that play off one another as the evening unfolds. We are invited to explore as well as observe its sounds and images.

Not surprisingly, two of the most striking performances are given by Monk herself, as the Child, and her longtime collaborator Ping Chong, as a Dictator who is menacing and buffoonish by turns. A large cast backs them up in a wide variety of scenes that stretch from everyday vignettes to political parodies and evocations of alarm and annihilation. Key technical contributions include Beverly Emmons's lighting design and Dave Geary's camera work and editing of the ``Quarry'' film, which holds up as the most stunning piece of visionary cinema that director Monk has given us to date.

``Quarry'' continues at La Mama through May 28. It is well worth visiting, contemplating, and heeding.

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