Some of today's most adventurous theater takes place not on Broadway or Off-Broadway, but farther still from the beaten track: Off-Off-Broadway, where anything can happen -- and usually does.
Off-Off-Broadway began as a haven for noncommercial theater, which can mean either "pure" or simply "unpopular." At first it was simply called "Off-Off-Broadway, a place for experiment, originally, and enterprise not possible under the commercial pressures of the Broadway hit-or-flop syndrome.
Then, as Off-Broadway itself became more commercially high-pressured -- a small-scale version of the Broadway stage to which it was supposed to be an alternative -- new room for experimentation was needed: Off-Off-Broadway. Since then scene has gotten livelier and livelier, incorporating all kinds of unlikely , experimental material.
This season looks particularly promising, with new works and revivals coming from lots of familiar Off-Off faces.
One of the most familiar is Spalding Gray, leading actor of the Performance Group, which makes its home in the cavernous Performing Garage on Wooster Street. Gray's work has been flying in two different directions lately. On one hand, he appears in huge multimedia meditations, directed by his gifted colleague, Elizabeth LeCompte. On the other hand, returning to a radical simplicity, he presents entertaining "monologues" devoid of all theatrical trappings, including a prepared script.
The thread that holds all this work together is Gray's own life history, which is the basic subject of all his theater pieces.
This season Gray will continue his solo efforts with "A Personal History of the American Theater," in which he comments on all the plays he has appeared in during his career, from exotic experimentalism to summer-stock comedy. It will run in repertory with a revival of "Point Judith," an enormously complex exploration of themes from Gray's life and work, in which director LeCompte orchestrates a multitude of elements including actors, movies, music, a 15 -minute adaptation of "Long Day's Journey into Night," and a fog machine.
"Point Judith," is a continuation of the Gray/LeCompte trilogy, "Three Places in Rhode Island." Newcomers, not familiar with the ongoing themes of their work, may find it puzzling. Even when viewed as sheer spectacle, however, it emerges as a challenging and stimulating exercise in memory, mystery, and mixed-media magic.
Gray is also developing a "movement" piece called "Nobody Wanted to Sit Behind a Desk," which continues his work documentary materials from his family life. Scheduled for a November opening at the Dance Theater Workshop, it sets Gray's gestures and movements to a tape recording of his father talking about his own day-to-day experience. And finally, the whole Gray/LeCompte troupe will soon begin work on a new major piece, taking its cue from themes already suggested in "Point Judith." The tentative title is "Our Town" (not to be confused with the Thornton Wilder classic of the same title).
Another mainstay of the Off-Off-Broadway scene is Charles Ludlam, leader of the not-so-silly Ridiculous Theatrical Company at 1 Sheridan Square. They have already kicked off their new season with "Reverse Psychology," which has been described as a classically written farce about psychiatrists with tangled wives and loves.
As usual, Ludlam is the playwright, star, designer, and just about everything else, assisted onstage by such Ridiculous regulars as Black-Eyed Susan and Bill Vehr. In November, the troupe will revive their modest but delicious adaptation of Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," a family treat with Ludlam as a very feisty Scrooge.
The renowned group Mabou Mines, having taken up residency at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theater, are readying a work by member Joanne Akalaitis called "Dead End Kids," subtitled "A History of Nuclear Power." Meanwhile, another Off-Off-Broadway stalwart, Richard Foreman, has moved temporarily to the world of uptown opera: His "Madame Adare" will be presented as part of a trilogy of one-acters by New York city Opera.
The big news is that Stanley Silverman composed the music -- yes, the same Stanley Silverman whose collaboration with Foreman dates back to the uproarious "occult opera" called "Elephant Steps," presented at Tanglewood about a decade ago.
Foreman has also completed his first film, called "Strong Medicine," which presumably partakes of the cinematic flow that is also part of his stage style. And Foreman is reportedly preparing a new play called "Sadness," in the line of his unconventional past work with the Ontological-Hysteric Theater. Look for it at the Public later this season.
As for the current granddaddy of theater experimenters, Robert Wilson, there has been talk of his directing an opera, probably by Wagner. If this does happen, it will most likely be in Europe, where Wilson finds his unorthodox work easier to finance.
These days Wilson's American fans are understandably frustrated: They read about huge Wilson productions abroad, but find his work in the United States limited to such "chamber pieces" as the recent "Dialogue/Curious George."
If you happen to like Wilson's most minimal offerings, though, get ready for the most minimal of all. Moving from stage to screen -- TV screen, that is -- Wilson has created "Video 50," consisting of 50 separate dramas, in sections precisely 30 seconds long. "Einstein on the Beach," Wilson's most famous work, lasted about five hours without so much as an intermission, and others have stretched to 12 hours and more. What can Wilson do in half a minute? The answer will be screened Oct. 24 and 26 at the Collective for Living Cinema. Surely some surprises will be in store.