Two new works shown on avant-garde stages

Two of Off Off Broadway's most adventurous artists, Richard Foreman and Ping Chong, are in top form with their newest plays. Foreman's offering, the unglamorously titled ``Symphony of Rats,'' finds this ambitious writer/director continuing his love affair with the Wooster Group, perhaps the only theater company with a vision as iconoclastic as Foreman's own. Its members collaborated with Foreman a few years ago on a partly successful pastiche called ``Miss Universal Happiness,'' which couched vague criticisms of American xenophobia in a burst of manic stagecraft that all but drowned whatever messages it had to offer.

Their new joint effort, ``Symphony of Rats,'' isn't all that clear about its messages, either. But it's as close as Foreman ever gets to a direct sociopolitical statement. The main character is the President of the United States, and he's been receiving communications from outer space that only he can hear. Is he crazy, or is he on to something? And if the communications are real, how can he tell if they're good or evil or something mere earthlings can't even pin a label on?

It's clear from Foreman's past work (mostly with the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, his own company) that he finds craziness and uncertainty in many aspects of American life, including the political sphere. What sets ``Symphony of Rats'' apart from his earlier plays is its comparative clarity. Foreman doesn't crowd the stage quite as relentlessly with eccentric actions by grotesque characters; the pace is a trifle more relaxed; and the action comes remarkably close to coalescing into a linear plot.

It doesn't, but what fun to watch Foreman toying with the notion! Also amazing are the performances by Wooster Group stars - most notably Peyton Smith, the energetic Kate Valk, and Ron Vawter, who's arguably the theater world's most gifted interpreter of nonlinear theatrical texts. They set the walls of the Performing Garage positively rattling with their inspired energy.

More delicate and also more elusive is ``Maraya - Acts of Nature in Geological Time,'' presented recently at the Apple Corp Theatre by Mr. Chong and his Fiji Company.

Neatly framed within a small stage area, the action is closer to a ritual than a story. The performers are flanked by video images of mysterious faces, perhaps representing the victims of history's many tragedies. In this setting the cast members dance, gesture, sing, and act out vignettes. Slowly it becomes clear that all of human experience is the subject of the show, which stretches from the distant past to the near future.

Many devices used in ``Maraya'' are Chong trademarks: stylized movements, printed words, wild shifts in time and space, a sense of stillness in the midst of much activity. Just as familiar, and effective, is Chong's wistful message that every happiness contains a sorrow and (equally important) that every sadness is matched by a great joy. At the heart of ``Maraya'' is a feeling that we, and Chong himself, have become sympathetic but distanced observers of the human scene. What we see is at once commonplace, mysterious, and - at a few extraordinary moments - close to transcendent.

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