Stars of Avant Garde Unveil Bold Works


Written and directed by Richard Foreman.

At the Ontological Theater at Saint Mark's Church through March 31.


Written and directed

by Lee Breuer.

At the Here Arts Center through Feb. 4.

Theater directors can be broadly divided into two groups. In one camp are those who see their main jobs as guiding performances and interpreting texts. In the other are those who relish the power of visual images, channeling much of their energy toward the eyes rather than the ears of their audience.

Off Off Broadway theater has a great tradition of image-oriented theater, and two of its longtime superstars have unveiled new shows recently. Both are brave and unconventional works, challenging viewers to leave behind old habits of looking and understanding. Yet each has a touch of nostalgia about it, harking back to bygone achievements even as it plugs into contemporary concepts of postmodern stagecraft.

Richard Foreman has been piloting his aptly named Ontological-Hysteric Theater for about 25 years, and some aspects of his work have remained surprisingly constant since his brilliant opera ''Elephant Steps'' back in the 1960s. He still assaults his spectators with bright lights, aggressive noises, and scenarios full of nimble non sequiturs. And he still prefers exploring an obsessive theme or idea - often buried in a tangle of antic embellishments - to telling a story with a recognizable beginning, middle, and end.

''The Universe'' is no exception. Its characters are James, a lonely man hungering for deeper awareness; Tony, an extraterrestrial visitor who seems to understand his needs; and Mary, who tempts James with possibilities of enlightenment he can't bring himself to accept.

They're a mysterious trio, in the usual Foreman fashion, stuck in a predicament that's as philosophically dense as it is emotionally tangled. They often seem as confused as their audience, but they gamely work to figure out their existential plight and grope their way to a more fulfilling life - perhaps by drinking the glass of warm milk that becomes a symbol for the ''milder pleasures'' offered by the Universe to people not yet ready for the transcendence James flirts with.

James Urbaniak, Tony Torn, and Mary McBride give vigorous performances, but the star of the show is writer-director-designer Foreman, who molds every detail of the evening to his own inimitable specifications. For those new to his work, ''The Universe'' makes a spunky introduction. For those familiar with him, it's like revisiting an old friend.

'AN Epidog,'' written and directed by Lee Breuer, is an epilogue to two highly praised shows, ''The Shaggy Dog Animation'' and ''A Prelude to Death in Venice,'' that Breuer first presented more than 15 years ago. Like much of his work for the renowned Mabou Mines troupe, it mixes media with great gusto - blending music and video with dance, recitation, and large-scale puppetry influenced by Japan's bunraku tradition. All of which is ingeniously woven into a motion-filled tapestry.

True, the play's dreamlike story - about a feminist dog remembering her eventful life while awaiting reincarnation as a warrior ant - is a bit heavy when it lapses into overlong monologues, and a second-act sex scene puts this puppet show off limits for children.

But the spectacle that surges through the tale is enchanting, especially when human ''puppets'' glide about the stage and merge into eye-catching tableaux under the graceful guidance of onstage puppet masters. Stretched across a wide stage like an avant-garde CinemaScope movie, ''An Epidog'' shows Breuer at the peak of his visual powers.

Heaps of credit also go to designer Julie Archer, puppet director Barbara Pollitt, and composer Ushio Torikai, as well as the cast, which includes Clove Galilee along with Mabou Mines veterans Ruth Maleczech and Frederick Neumann.

Prepared via video-conferencing between collaborators in Japan and the United States, the production is presented by Mabou Mines and the Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatre.

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