Squat company: audacious, provocative stagecraft

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Is it a movie or a play? A drama or a dream? A story or a poetic meditation on urban loneliness? These are among the questions raised by ``Dreamland Burns,'' an ambitious new work by the itinerant Squat Theatre, which came from Hungary to Manhattan a few years ago but recently had to vacate its home in the Chelsea neighborhood. Fittingly, the group's return to New York is taking place at the Kitchen, a major arts center that itself moved recently from SoHo to Greenwich Village.

Squat's most audacious contribution to stagecraft has been the notion of ``storefront theater,'' whereby performances are staged in front of a window at sidewalk level, and passersby become part of the show as they hurry past or stop to watch.

Since storefront theater is impossible without a storefront, the currently homeless Squat troupe -- a veteran of many experiments with film and video -- has turned to other means of expanding its visual range. For about half its running time, the new ``Dreamland Burns'' is a crisply shot 16-mm movie. The star is longtime Squat member Eszter Balint, who plays a young New Yorker whose move to a new apartment is complicated by boyfriend troubles.

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It's not surprising that relocation should be a central metaphor in a Squat production, since the group (true to its name) is fascinated with impermanence and considers ``squatting'' a normal condition of life. What is unexpected, for anyone who has seen such iconoclastic Squat works as ``Andy Warhol's Last Love'' or ``Mr. Dead & Mrs. Free,'' is how conventional the ``Dreamland Burns'' film appears to be. True, some of the characters are decidedly odd -- the palm-reading taxi driver, for instance, or the TV preacher who tells his viewers they're ``addicted to hell.'' But the action moves in an orderly way, glued together by standard camera and editing techniques.

The big jolt of the evening takes place when the heroine falls asleep in her new apartment -- and suddenly a stage behind the movie screen (invisible until now) comes alive in a burst of flame. Any idea that Squat has gone tame or unimaginative must vanish at this moment, as fire blazes across one's field of vision, the movie screen rises like a curtain, and the film's characters reappear in live performance.

From here on, ``Dreamland Burns'' is paradoxically more exciting and less involving than it was before. Much of the stagecraft is ingenious: Films are projected on the faces of dummies; objects fall thunderously from above; a life-size automobile pumps exhaust fumes across the stage. Yet in typical Squat fashion, ideas are hinted at and played with, never spelled out or elaborated. Before long, mystery overtakes meaning with too many vivid images that don't have quite enough sustained energy or intellectual weight to persuade us of their lasting importance.

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