Avant-garde theater gets a lift from a new talent. His new play packs surprises

``White Water'' helps explain why John Jesurun is one of the most talked-about young directors on the Off Off Broadway theater scene. It packs some real surprises. One surprise is that Mr. Jesurun has built such a strong avant-garde reputation without following all the current avant-garde rules.

True, his new show uses fashionable mixed-media techniques: Three of the six characters, in fact, are played by videotaped performers who appear on television tubes scattered around the stage.

Beyond this, however, there's little high-tech trickery, and absolutely none of the visual razzle-dazzle that's integral to the work of theatrical trend-setters such as Robert Wilson and Laurie Anderson.

Jesurun also takes a delight in language that one doesn't find in much of today's experimental theater.

``White Water'' is so stuffed with dialogue, wordplay, tropes, quotes, and allusions that its spirit often seems closer to David Mamet or even Tom Stoppard than to the eye-oriented stagecraft that is currently in vogue.

And Jesurun doesn't shy away from overt subject matter in the manner of Wilson and his followers, who generally deal in images and gestures with no literal meanings.

``White Water'' tells a story with recognizable characters and a coherent structure. Moreover, the story is about religious belief, not currently thought of as one of the hippest topics one might choose.

The main character is a teen-age boy who claims he has seen a vision -- a woman floating through the air, clothed in light and speaking in a strange tongue, telling him to pray and to drink the water of a certain spring.

Although he isn't religious, the boy has followed her instructions.

Now others are following him, and some think they have been cured of ailments by doing so.

Jesurun seems less interested in religious experience -- there's every chance that the boy is simply lying, after all -- than with the interplay between old-fashioned belief and the cynical manipulations of today's media-saturated culture.

The play's other characters (a television producer, a lawyer, a member of the clergy) are primarily concerned not with the boy's truthfulness but with the effect his activities might have on their own public images and niches in society.

Acting from barely hidden agendas, they try to get him to recant or at least change his story so it won't imperil the social and psychological bubbles they live in. The status quo, not truth, is their preoccupation.

The high profile of video images in the ``White Water'' production serves to underscore Jesurun's ironic interest in media mania.

Unfortunately, other aspects of the show are less effective. The staging is lean and economical, but also static and claustrophobic.

And although the performers are versatile -- just three people play all six live and videotaped characters -- they act mainly with their voices, contributing little to the drama through movement or gesture.

``White Water'' is less flashy than Jesurun's last major show, ``Deep Sleep,'' in which characters seemed to trade places between real-life and movie-screen locations. It's also more coherent and more verbally adept.

Jesurun continues to show enormous promise, and his career should be an interesting one to track.

``White Water'' continues at The Kitchen here through Nov. 1. The next Jesurun production, ``Black Maria,'' will open next April at the La Mama theater in New York.

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