On stage: Versatile talent transcends a minimal setting

As you enter the theater to watch ``Acts From Under and Above,'' by Meredith Monk, you see a small figure sitting in silence at a table, slowly turning the pages of a large book. A dim light shines on her, abruptly shifting its direction now and then, but revealing little about her except her presence. How long has she been here? A minute, an hour, a day? What are the secrets of the book she's poring over? Which of those secrets will she pass on to us?

This is an intense way to begin a music-theater show, and it signals the prevailing mood of the evening. Not the only mood, mind you -- there are times when that enigmatic figure bursts into song, engages in childlike play, or does a dance that's half Raggedy Ann, half Robby the Robot. But there's a concentration to this work and to Monk's intently focused performance that lends a sense of mystery and awe to the simple sounds, gestures, and movements that make it up.

The twin subjects of ``Acts From Under and Above'' appear to be solitude and friendship -- or rather, solitude and the vast range of emotions that can pass between two people who have been close for a long time.

Monk performs the first half alone, in a setting that could be a cave or underground vault, calling on all her talents as an actress, dancer, singer, pianist, and composer. She performs the second half in partnership with a woman who has been close to her for a long time: Lanny Harrison, a 16-year member of the House, her performing troupe. During this portion the dark, isolated setting is broken up by a friendly window that opens onto a parlor, and jaunty sounds of ragtime help scatter the shadows of the evening.

Even at its most expansive, ``Acts From Under and Above'' is a minimal sort of show, building its effect through an accumulation of small details. The second half amounts to a duet version of the first, with the two performers (joined briefly by a third) engaged in a broader and showier range of activities. The work never turns literal or realistic, preferring to hint at rather than spell out its meanings. One attends it not to ponder social or political ideas but to encounter Monk's versatile talent in an intimate setting, and to explore her intuitive discoveries about art, communication, and human nature. Other contributors to the show include pianist Nurit Tilles, who also takes a brief part in the action; and David Gearey, who (working from a Monk scenario) made the quietly effective films that appear in the background now and then. ``Acts From Under and Above'' continues at La Mama through Sunday.

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