``Shatterhand Massacree - Riderless Horse'' is the most purely theatrical show John Jesurun has presented here in quite a while. It's also the best - indicating that pure theatrics may be the true forte of this young mixed-media wizard. True, multimedia high jinks aren't altogether absent from the production. The scenery, a pair of curtains blowing in the breeze, is seen on TV monitors. Loud music punctuates the evening at key moments.
But the show's action is carried by five performers who appear in person, before our very eyes. While this is the norm for most plays, it's a change of pace for Jesurun, whose last few productions have systematically replaced live actors with prerecorded ones. ``Deep Sleep'' was a confrontation between two groups of characters, half of them live and half on film. ``White Water'' interspersed live and videotaped performers. ``Black Maria'' did away with live people altogether, surrounding its audience with images on huge movie screens.
First performed almost three years ago, ``Shatterhand Massacree - Riderless Horse'' was devised before those productions.
By presenting its first major New York engagement now, as the opening attraction in the Kitchen's new season, Jesurun has chosen to reaffirm his fascination with live theater unenhanced by cinematic or electronic effects. This doesn't mean he's backing away from his experimental approach to stagecraft, though. His verbal, visual, and directorial ideas are at their most adventurous during the course of this brief evening.
The story takes its cue from at least three sources. One is the myth of ``wild children'' lost by their parents and raised by animals during the American pioneer days. Another, used playfully, is the Alfred Hitchcock tradition of movie suspense. The third is Jesurun's view of Western civilization as a precariously glued-together affair perched on the barely buried bones of past chaos and injustice.
Two of the main characters are long-missing family members who return home, where they're accused of being wolves and participating in attacks on human beings. In a dreamlike and very Jesurun-like way, these wolves look like people and claim to be people, yet their behavior often sounds like that of birds or fish when it's discussed. All this suggests that they're not real creatures, but reflections of what Jesurun sees as a sadly confused and fearful American consciousness.
Sometimes facing each other across a bare table, other times pacing ferally about the starkly lit stage, the ``wolves'' and their accusers fling words and gestures at each other with a force that gains in savagery as the evening progresses.
Even when the dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny, it's impossible to lose sight of Jesurun's acerbic attitude toward human nature. This is tempered, however, by the possibility of redemption that he apparently sees in the family's capacity for regeneration - and in the capacity of his own words to restructure myth and meaning in newly revealing ways.