Plain objects star in lively offbeat show

Not long ago, actors and playwrights were frequently obsessed with words. Then a reaction set in, and a new kind of theater developed -- pioneered by such groups as the Living Theater and the Open Theater -- based on movements and gestures.

Now the trend has gone a step further, and objects have become a central focus of concern. This interest in things is much in evidence just now at the Performing Garage in SoHo, a lively and unpredictable showcase for experimental theater.

In a new work called XXXStanding Room Only, Libby Howes explores the outer limits of theatrical form. An upstairs room at the Garage has been made over into a loft-type apartment, complete with sleeping area, kitchen, living-room space, and so forth.

Yet all the room's stage, of a thoroughly unconventional kind. Light bulbs burn beneath the bed, a movie is projected on the bathroom door, a technician controls a barrage of sound from a battery of phonographs and tape recorders. Members of the audience stand or sit where they want. The star of the show, Miss Howes in a tattered dress, strolls through this cheerful chaos, calling occasional instructions to a woman putting on a slide show in the middle of it all.

And that's it. Nothing "happens" in the usual theatrical way. We can watch the slides, tap our feet to the rock-and-roll, watch Miss Howes vacuum the floor , or take a nap. Virtually every barrier between audience and performer has been removed. As spectators, we are told where or when to direct our attention.

In turn, we do not expect the performer to "act" or entertain us. If this is a play at all, it's in the other meaning of that word -- to play as children do, wandering at will through this electronic playground.

Except for its complicated technical setup, with various projectors and recordings spinning away at one, "XXX" is astonishing in its directness. Miss Howes has clearly been influenced by her working with Spalding Gray and Elizabeth LeCompte, in whose multimedia meditations she has appeared. But it's an assimilated influence, not an undigested imitation. A few months ago, some performers put on a show called "Self- Surgery" at the Performing Garage, taking a few interesting ideas and virtually swamping them with borrowings from Gray and LeCompte. By contrast, Miss Howes uses the same kind of media manipulation in a loose- limbed style that's entirely her own. "XXX" is a most promising experiment. One wonders where it might lead. Twelfth Spectacle

Another performing Garage production, Stuart Sherman's Twelfth Spectacle (Language) is the latest in a long series of shows by this respected avant-gardist.

If there's such a thing as a minimal spectacle, Sherman is the master of the art.In his new work, he stands onstage with a literal bag of tricks at his side -- a suitcase stuffed with offbeat props and objects. These are the subject of various manipulations that are apparently connected -- in Sherman's mind, if not always in ours -- with language.

Deadpan, the performer unscrews the mouthpiece of a telephone and hangs it on his ear.He puts on glasses with printed pages where lenses ought to be. He repeats pointless phrases into a tape recorded, winds a kitchen knife with tape, plays with toy animals. It's an obsessive show, to be sure, but sometimes a very funny one. And it says a lot, even on first viewing, about the complicated relationships between the physical and conceptual elements of daily life -- not to mention language itself, where physical process and abstract thought mesh into a resonant whole.

Quite a freight of meaning for a sort of straight-faced comedy routine, with a performer whose own personality is kept deliberately under wraps. The evening also includes several short films by Sherman, quick visual poems with witty punch lines that seem more original each time they are seen. Not high art, perhaps, but peculiarly unique. True Story

A third Performing Garage offering, staged and performed by a new talent named Rosemary Hochschild, is also a one-person show, and the title is a whopper: The True Story of Harry Belafonte's Black South African Servant.

I have no idea how true the story is, but it's evocative. Along onstage, Miss Hochschild puts elaborate makeup on her face while telling of a family that went to great lengths to get their South African maid into the United States, only to have her hired out from under them by the celebrity Belafonte. It's a short work, about 25 minutes long, but it makes a stringent comment on the lingerie class system in the United States, and pokes ungentle fun at the proprietary attitudes of some American patricians.

The show also includes some striking images, such as the silhouetted figure of a bucket-toting maid trudging to work while Belafonte cheerily sings "Hava Nagilah." From this brief bit of evidence, Miss Hochschild is a talent to watch.

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