Soviet poet's exploration of sound opens at MOCA

Towards the beginning of poet Velimir Khlebnikov's symbolist drama ``Zangezi,'' the main character says, ``I despair at the windows of the human word.'' It is a sentence that reveals as much about the Soviet writer's artistic intent as it does his dramatic alter ego, the prophet Zangezi. A member of the ``Russian Cubo-Futurists,'' a movement concurrent with French Cubism and Italian Futurism, Mr. Khlebnikov has been compared to James Joyce and Gertrude Stein for his innovative explorations of language. Collectively committed to political as well as artistic revolution, the ``Futurians,'' as Khlebnikov dubbed them, approached the visual and literary arts as a malleable construction; when reshaped, they could support a new Utopian vision. Khlebnikov was specifically interested in developing a new language, one composed of a ``trans-rational'' vocabulary using Slavic words and sounds. It is this restructuring of speech based on aural patterns that forms the subject and influences the structure of ``Zangezi.''

Perhaps best called an avant-garde verse play, ``Zangezi'' had its first and (until now) only production in Leningrad in 1923. In a staged reading by fellow artist Vladimir Tatlin, the play was received largely as a pretext for Tatlin's scenic construction. Now, in its English-language premi'ere at the new Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) here, ``Zangezi'' achieves fresh dramatic life.

Under the direction of Peter Sellars, the controversial former artistic director of the American National Theater in Washington, D.C., this ``Supersaga in Twenty Planes'' appears tai lor-made for the director's iconoclastic talents. Khlebnikov moves his protagonist, Zangezi, a mountaintop-dwelling prophet who not only hears but sees the structures of sound, through 20 historical periods. Discerning and mimicking the language of birds, gods, and stars, Zangezi is a practitioner of speaking-in-tongues, which the Futurians called ``zaum'' or ``beyonsense.'' For Khlebnikov, it was audible prophecy; the future was perceivable if it could only be heard.

In his exploration of Khlebnikov's conceptual universe - where science and art, history and spirituality overlap, the director has produced a multidisciplinary performance that incorporates many of his favorite theatrical techniques, including music, electronic voice-overs, and film.

However, visual exploration of an oral medium - sound is the play's subject - is fraught with dramatic pitfalls. Khlebnikov's alliterative word games - extended riffs on particular letters like R, L, and M, such as ``Now is the coming of M! Mightlings and masochins! Michness of muchness!'' - provided translator Paul Schmidt with ample opportunities for onomatopoetic exploration. But, as a foundation for dramatic action, they are less successful. The play's other characters, Sorrow and Laughter, are portrayed as street people who respond to Zangezi's pronouncements with alternating rapt attention and scoffing disinterest. ``That stuff sounds beautiful, but we're cold,'' says Sorrow.

Setting the play atop an inner-city rooftop designed by George Typsin, Sellars uses an impressive trio of actors, Rod Gist, David Warrilow, and Ruth Maleczech. Even so, the production suffers from an inevitable sense of stasis. While Warrilow, a hypnotically-voiced Zangezi, ascends a fire escape, tiptoes across a tightrope of cables, and ultimately leaps out of ``fate's unyielding window pane,'' the production is characterized less by movement than by constantly shifting tonal patterns. Khlebnikov's spoken tempos, which range from blank verse to rap to everyday discourse, are underscored by Jon Hassell's evocative electronic score, which resounds with echoes of drumbeats, heartbeats, and chorales.

Despite Khlebnikov's attempts to dramatize his protagonist's flight ``to the source of pre-knowledge,'' his text is most successful when it stays within the bounds of traditional imagistic poetry: ``Imagine a nation become like a stricken deer. Its wet, black muzzle nudges at the gates of destiny.'' Such lines resound even more strongly today with the knowledge of the avant-garde poets' fate under Stalin. Zangezi asserts, ``You are now set free from your ancestral chains. The hammer of my voice has shattered them.'' But Soviet history refutes this articulate testimony. Khlebnikov, like his protagonist, remains an Adamic chronicler of a ruined Eden.

``Zangezi,'' the first production of MOCA's 13-month performance-art series, will play in the museum's Ahmanson Auditorium through Dec. 21. Excerpts will be broadcast by American Public Radio next March.

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