John Jesurun is a stage director who has gravitated further and further from live performance. He mixed film with theater in ``Deep Sleep,'' and then he mixed video with theater in ``White Water.''
In his new production, ``Black Maria,'' he mixes film with film, leaving out live performers altogether. Yet the show still has the flavor of a theatrical event: It's a movie ``in the round,'' with audience members surrounded by a diamond-shaped cocoon of motion-picture screens, plus another one overhead. The action ricochets from one screen to another with split-second speed and precision.
This setup is so impressive, conceptually and technically, that one wishes Mr. Jesurun would put it in the service of a more substantial story than ``Black Maria'' has to offer.
The plot is as ambiguous as the title, which refers to a legendary film studio of Thomas Edison as well as the old slang term for a police ``paddy wagon.''
The characters, described at one point as ``refugees from a wagon train,'' are stranded in some remote place that could be a trap or a prison or even a land of the dead, according to various clues tossed out in the dialogue. They converse and argue and feud among themselves, talking variously about the present and the past. Their images move from screen to screen, meanwhile, and the background changes arbitrarily, rather like the setting of a ``Krazy Kat'' cartoon strip. The shiftiness of place, time, and even characterization recalls the work of Luigi Pirandello, which often has the same atmosphere of self-conscious trickiness. Jesurun also favors stylized speech patterns that give some passages the rhythm of a chanted rock song.
``Black Maria'' is enthusiastically performed by a cast that includes Larry Tighe, Michael Tighe, and Black-Eyed Susan of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, all seasoned Jesurun colleagues. After beginning about 45 minutes late, the opening-night performance at La Mama went off without a hitch despite the daunting technical challenges involved in such a geometrically unconventional multimovie enterprise.
Jesurun has undeniably hit on a promising idea in setting up his own ``five-plex'' cinema and using it to explore his favorite themes of alienation, noncommunication, and personality fragmentation in today's world. If he can now join his themes and his technology with a solid narrative - or perhaps if he gets bold enough to abandon narrative altogether - he may yet make an indelible impression on the movie and theatrical worlds.
The premi`ere engagement of ``Black Maria'' runs at La Mama through April 26.