Avant-garde theater gets a lift from a new talent. Jesurun stands out among experimenters using mixed media to revitalize stage
Amid the shifting and frequently faddish sands of New York's avant-garde theater scene, John Jesurun is emerging as one of the more consistent new talents. With a reputation for artistic unconventionality established by a string of critically acclaimed theater pieces, Mr. Jesurun is currently at the forefront of a generation of artists who are scavenging the film, video, TV, and recording fields for devices that effectively redefine theater.
Last year, ``Deep Sleep,'' a provocative interplay between video and live performance, earned the Yale-educated sculptor/filmmaker/playwright his first Obie Award.
This season, Jesurun's latest multimedia theatrical work, ``White Water,'' which is currently playing at The Kitchen in New York, premi`ered not in Manhattan's arty East Village but in buttoned-down Boston. The work was commissioned by the Institute for Contemporary Art here.
Like other avant-garde artists, such as Spaulding Gray and Laurie Anderson who are moving from the fringes into the cultural mainstream, Jesurun is expanding both his audience and his artistic aims.
``A decade ago the idea about a mass audience was that they were stupid,'' says Jesurun. ``That's the old art school mentality. Audiences [today] are interested in something new, and in the past couple years they haven't been furnished with that [in theater.]''
Extolled in the press -- the Village Voice called him ``the most original conceptualist now working in experimental theater'' -- Jesurun attributes the growing interest in nontraditional theater to the cultural coming of age by a generation weaned on the electronic media.
``Mine is a multimedia generation that has grown up on TV, records, and film,'' says Jesurun. ``We may not all have read Shakespeare, but we know how TV works.''
Although he trained to be an artist and got his MFA from Yale University, Jesurun soon became interested in adapting cinematic techniques for use in the theater.
After a brief period of creating short, nonnarrative films and a two-year stint as an associate producer of ``The Dick Cavett Show,'' Jesurun turned to New York's experimental theater scene.
There his intellectual, quasi-soap-opera video series, ``Chang in a Void Moon,'' quickly became a Monday night must-see in Manhattan's lower East Side and led to his first European tour.
In the manner of avant-garde theatrical titan Robert Wilson, Jesurun constructs his performance pieces along dualistic lines, in which visual patterns and aural often work tangentially. But where Wilson's work relies on a things like laser beams, dance movement, and giant projected images, Jesurun sticks closely to a minimilist use of video.
So far that style clearly delineates his artistic territory.
``When you are watching TV or a film, your mind is working in a very sophisticated way,'' Jesurun says. ``Although most TV and film are not sophisticated [in content], the techniques are. People absorb images, words, music and put them in order, instead of having it all played out in a linear way . . . .''
While some of Jesurun's elaborately scripted works echo British playwright Harold Pinter, his staging is purposely disorienting. Though the stagecraft is reminiscent of avant-garde director Richard Foreman, Jesurun's theater pieces come resoundingly into their own -- to produce a sort of linguistic and spatial cubism.
``Mine isn't a search for a solid form but for something in that space,'' says the former sculptor. ``And there are verbal rhythms happening in that space.''
Indeed, the structural arrangements in his plays range from the baroquely surrealistic ``Chang in a Void Moon'' to the cinematic ``Dog's Eye View'' to the strongly verbal ``Red House'' and ``Deep Sleep.''
Nearly every piece is staged with a handful of actors, video monitors, and the rapid-fire delivery of non-narrative dialogue. The result is a triad of tension among the screen and stage images and the frequently disconnected verbal facet.
``I enjoy the element of confusion a lot,'' confesses Jesurun.
``But I also see it makes perfect sense: People have to be able to edit the world into a particular order -- or admit the disorder.''
Although Jesurun originally concentrated on editing, or manipulating, his plays' visual images -- ``Chang'' relied on such camera effects as close-ups, jump cuts, and dissolves -- his more recent works, ``Red House,'' and ``Deep Sleep,'' demonstrate an adeptness with language.
Using puns, allusions, and non sequiturs, Jesurun divorces the dialogue from its traditional narrative purpose and propels it into a new orbit. Particular words or phrases, such as ``beatbox'' and ``voodoo chile'' in ``Red House,'' recur like totems. Rock lyrics and rhyme are frequently used. The result: speech patterns that not only call attention to themselves but also manipulate the play's sense of time and progression.
Jesurun used his techniques of disassociation and recombination to best effect, perhaps, in the award-winning ``Deep Sleep,'' where his carefully choreographed verbal ping-pong match between live actors and their own images seen on videotape probed the fuzzy line between filmed and live events.
It is a subject that Jesurun returns to, with some modifications, in ``White Water'' [see review, Page 23].
``This is a piece I've wanted to do for a long time,'' says the slight, dark-haired director. ``I'm already over the big [stylistic] battle. . . . So this piece is less of a total cubistic nightmare and has more of an obvious story line -- a series of thousands of questions coming out in rhythmic ways attached to one [narrative] thread.
``It's a juxtaposition of truth-telling and lie-telling,'' he continues, ``. . . a sort of `I saw it on TV so it must be true' -- when none of it is coming from what we've actually seen but just this [TV] box.''
This ``idea of the video monitor as always being perfect'' forms the cornerstone of Jesurun's artistic process as well. ``I basically start with the whole thing, break it up, and put it back together again,'' says the director.
He begins by ``writing and drawing at the same time'' and eventually assembles his actors, first for the video-taped sequences and then, after weeks of painstaking editing, for live rehearsal incorporating the taped portions. Jesurun has nothing but praise for his actors, who also cross new artistic boundaries by acting not only with colleagues but with a piece of film.
``The whole system may break down at any moment,'' says Jesurun. ``If only people realized what's happening -- that it's like walking a tightrope!''