The theater of ideas may be staging a comeback. That's one message suggested by two recent offerings at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in its respected ``Next Wave'' festival: ``Social Amnesia,'' a so-called ``live movie'' by the Impossible Theater of Baltimore and John Schneider of Theatre X, a Milwaukee troupe; and ``The Angels of Swedenborg,'' a visionary play by Ping Chong and the Fiji Company of New York.
In recent years, the cutting edge of experimental theater has been dominated by spectacles that stress images and effects over ideas and ideologies. Robert Wilson, the pace-setter of this trend, has avoided meanings of any kind in shows like ``Einstein on the Beach'' and ``The Golden Windows,'' made up of abstract movements and tableaux. Similar strategies have marked the work of Richard Foreman and Laurie Anderson, among other leading stage artists.
It hasn't always been this way. Two decades ago, experimental stages were crowded with radical performers and ``guerrilla theater'' that spilled from the stage into the aisles and even the streets. Far from the sumptuous spectacles of the Wilson school, such work often sported a proud poverty, as when the Living Theatre blitzed spectators with ``Paradise Now'' in loincloths and bare feet. But ideas, controversial or otherwise, have lost ground since then. Even the legendary Living has failed to find an American audience in the '80s, notwithstanding its own drift toward lavish effects in productions like ``The Archaeology of Sleep.''
Seeking inspiration, influential figures like Wilson and Foreman have turned more to their own imaginations than to the outside world, creating a form of theater that often veered close to dance. (Dancers like Carolyn Carlson and Pina Bausch repaid the compliment, meanwhile, devising highly theatrical works that further shored up the strength of ambiguous, image-oriented stagecraft.)
In a trend that appears to be gathering momentum fast, the last couple of years have seen a swing back toward meanings and messages. Foreman has injected political commentary into some recent works, and even Wilson has started telling stories with overtones of social relevance. The new ``Social Amnesia'' is another fine example, managing to seethe with ideas while still bombarding its audience with elaborate stage effects.
The action focuses on such cautionary characters as a homeless woman, a shallow secretary, and a teenage girl who calls herself an ``auto-lemming'' and wants to commit suicide as a social protest.
Their personalities, lifestyles, and activities are woven into a loose plot that's meant to comment on consumerism, racism, and other contemporary ills. Bouncing off the live performances, meanwhile, is a mixed-media cascade generated by a ``nine-projector computerized dissolve slide system'' and accompanied by electronically tailored sounds.
With its forthright positions on newsy issues, ``Social Amnesia'' takes a strong stand in favor of sociopolitical theater - and makes a case that such theater can be combined with the audiovisual hijinks that are now in vogue. The case would be more convincing if Schneider and the Impossible troupe had crafted their show more efficiently: Its script and its stagecraft grow repetitious long before the final blackout, and too many moments are trite or coy. Still, it's an ambitious attempt to revive an endangered theatrical species. One hopes it portends more fully realized things to come.
``The Angels of Swedenborg'' confirms Ping Chong's position as one of today's most inventive Off-Off-Broadway thinkers, capable of expressing relevant ideas through delicate visual poetry. Although it's not specifically a sociopolitical show, it makes sardonic comments on contemporary life from its first scene, when 18th-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg is introduced as a 20th-century yuppie fond of cataloging his possessions in long, proud recitations.
Much of the play's plotless, dancelike action follows through on Chong's concern with the chronic conflict between visionary aspiration and materialistic ballast.
Chong never comes to a clearly stated conclusion about this, or about its specific effects on society - the show drifts into a reverie about angelic creatures, and never quite gets back to reality - but his allusions to timeless philosophical issues are as manifold as his literary references to Jorge Luis Borges and Swedenborg himself. Chong remains a terrifically intelligent stage magician even when he isn't at the top form of ``A Race'' and ``Anna Into Nightlight,'' his finest works of recent years.