`Chekhov': defining the essence of the playwright

Little things mean a lot in Stuart Sherman's art. His work thrives on small gestures, fleeting words, and images as uncomplicated as they are imaginative. He's a humorist at heart, but you'll never catch him telling a joke. He'd rather suggest than spell out his wry view of human nature and the world around it.

What makes him a major figure on today's arts scene is the success with which he translates his spare, concise vision into works for a wide variety of media. As a filmmaker, a sculptor, a set designer, and a ``performance artist,'' he has a loyal following and a growing international reputation.

Sherman's latest theater piece, ``Chekhov,'' is part of a projected trilogy that will also include a ``Strindberg'' and a ``Brecht.'' The first installment, now onstage at the Performing Garage, isn't a biography or study of the famous Russian playwright -- it's an attempt to define his essence through images and movements.

True, much of the action is more Sherman than Chekhov, as six characters shuffle in patterns around the stage, accompanied by taped Chekhov excerpts. But there's something oddly, indefinably Chekhovian in the sight of trees made out of words, alternately thudding to the floor and bobbing back to upright positions. On the other side of the stage, meanwhile, Sherman captures the importance of places and objects in Chekhov's drama -- showing us a room that draws its life from things rather than actors, and

that shines for a moment with a rich green glow echoing the natural world outside.

Like the small but stunning version of ``The Three Sisters'' produced by the Squat Theater a few seasons ago, Sherman's piece isn't merely a reduction of Chekhov's art -- it's a distillation, carrying us to bare essentials and beyond. It's an unusual essay, and a thought-provoking one.

Also on the bill of Sherman's latest show are works in many other media. The program begins with a taped ``sound piece'' called ``Doors,'' a tiny concerto for creaking hinges and sundry other noises.

Next up are three films. The first two, ``Fish Story'' and ``Portrait of Benedicte Pesle,'' are marvelous examples of Sherman's cinematic style, editing quick sight gags about fish, pillows, and other unlikely objects into a kind of post-Ernie Kovacs minimalism. ``Mr. Ashley Proposes (Portrait of George)'' manages to be even more basic while combining a personality study with a comment on social habits.

Some artists have taken an interest in slide shows as a serious medium, and it seems logical for Sherman to join them, given the orderly image-to-image progressions that have marked his film work for years. ``Telephone Call'' is a promising excursion into the art of the still photo, although ``Song of the Fly'' recalls visual ideas already used by Meredith Monk.

The program seems purely Shermanesque again when it moves to four ``performances,'' each as brief and pithy as the preceding works. The most accessible is the first, ``Taxi Dance,'' a comical trio for cab-hunters. ``Portrait of Santa Fe and Brussels'' is an allusive evocation of two locales, while ``Inside an Outsider's View of M.I.T.'' finds Sherman hilariously tinkering with lightbulbs and a video monitor as he muses over the high-tech collegiate life. ``Portrait of Rainer Werner Fassbinder'' is less impressive, capturing the clich'es about -- but not the aura of -- the late West German filmmaker.

Collaborators in these pieces include George Ashley (a sometime colleague of Robert Wilson) and Black-Eyed Susan of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Their deadpan performances mesh perfectly with Sherman's modest yet incisive approach to stagecraft.

Sherman himself has received a Deutcher Akademischer Austauschdienst grant to live and work in West Germany for several months next year. The complete version of his new trilogy will be presented at the Theater das Welt in Frankfurt this September.

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