`Warrior Ant': daring mega-theater. Afro-Caribbean and Japanese motifs in a surprising blend

At a time when stage productions often seem flat and two-dimensional, director Lee Breuer has devoted a sizable chunk of his career to cooking up a more spectacular approach. The latest result of his labor is a show called ``The Warrior Ant,'' ultimately meant to last a dozen hours and take three evenings to present. Only a few portions of it have been whipped into final form so far, but they're a rousing entertainment in themselves - lively, ambitious, and unconventional enough to make a good opener for this year's edition of the Next Wave Festival, the avant-garde smorgasbord put on each fall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).

Second cross-cultural hybrid

Mr. Breuer is fascinated by unlikely combinations, but there's nothing haphazard about the choices he makes in stirring ingredients together. His previous Next Wave enterprise, for instance, was ``The Gospel at Colonus,'' an acclaimed production that moved the Sophocles tragedy ``Oedipus at Colonus'' to a black American church and set the ancient Greek text to contemporary gospel-style music. Although this sounds like an arbitrary marriage of incompatible elements, it represented a calculated (and successful) attempt to develop a vital kind of stage presentation not based on too-familiar British, Hollywood, and Actors Studio models.

``The Warrior Ant'' is a continuation of Breuer's longstanding search for fresh and productive cross-cultural hybrids. This time he has gone farther afield than ever in his quest, spicing the show with Afro-Caribbean music, Japanese puppetry, and West African storytelling. He falls too much in love with his ingredients at times, allowing the momentum of the production to flag - and making it hard to imagine how three whole evenings of similar stuff could be anything but overextended. Yet there's enough laughter, poetry, and exuberance in the first three hours' worth to whet one's appetite for at least a little more.

The edition of ``The Warrior Ant'' at BAM comprises Book I and the conclusion of Book III from the projected full-length version. The first act, ``The Ant Conceived,'' is a celebration of love set on the one night every year when ants, according to Breuer's text, can fly and mate. This segment of the show is more an Afro-Caribbean concert than an attempt at storytelling: Music is the dominant element as the stage swarms with singers, instrumentalists, and eventually a towering ant that's so large it needs airplane propellers to bring it aloft for its annual evening of love.

An engaging Act II

The second act, ``An Ant in Hell,'' is wittier and more engaging. Our hero - born from an ant, but looking like a miniature Japanese swordsman - fights a duel and lands in the underworld. Here he meets a ``great worm'' who guides him, like a slithery Virgil, through a part of Hades that Dante never told us about: the sixth circle, populated by lost souls whose sin was creating bad art. This gives Breuer an opportunity to make Neil Simon jokes and confront our hero with his father, who turns out to be a termite. It also gives bunraku master Yoshida Tamamatsu and his colleagues a chance to display some hilarious feats of puppeteering skill.

The show loses a lot of its steam in the second part of Act II, especially when the hero's windy dad keeps nattering on with dull speeches. The pace stays subdued but the poetry becomes more stirring in the epilogue, ``An Ant Concludes,'' which finds the protagonist making a pilgrimage to the top of a redwood tree, falling in love with a melancholy moth, and ending his life in a most mystical fashion.

The episodes of ``The Warrior Ant'' are unevenly paced, and if you have no particular interest in Afro-Caribbean pop music, you'll find even some of the more rambunctious portions long and monotonous.

Even so, there's no denying Breuer's success at blending disparate elements into a fresh and often surprising whole. And there's even something downright charming about the affection this proudly experimental director displays for a kind of spectacle that's rooted not only in the cross-cultural currents of avant-garde exploration but also in the show-off tradition of Radio City Music Hall.

``The Warrior Ant'' has been in development for about five years, and parts of it have been seen at a long list of showplaces in a long list of American cities. I'm not convinced we need another two evenings of it, but its future will be interesting to chart.

As for the future of this year's Next Wave, it looks bright. Highlights include ``The Forest,'' a new spectacle by director Robert Wilson and composer David Byrne; a performance inspired by Thomas Hardy's moody masterpiece ``The Return of the Native,'' concocted by musician Peter Gordon and video artist Kit Fitzgerald; solo shows by Bob Berky, a clown, and Michael Moschen, a juggler; evenings of polkas, tangos, and Japanese avant-garde dance; the American debut of the London-based DV8 Theatre; a concert by the Brooklyn Philharmonic; and lots more. The program continues through Dec. 17, and some successful entries will go on tour after their BAM performances.

``The Warrior Ant'' runs through this Sunday.

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