As I was leaving the theater the other night, an older gentleman with a lapel-grabbing voice and a friendly jack-in-the-box manner stopped me dead in my tracks.
"What was the point of that?" the nattily attired stranger demanded.
We had just seen "The Brig," Kenneth H. Brown's countercultural classic, which was first produced in 1963 by the Living Theatre in New York and was now being directed by Tom Lillard, an actor from the show's original company, at the Odyssey Theatre. With little drama and even less dialogue, the stark staging re-creates the disciplinary rituals inside an American military prison in postwar Japan. For two hours, we watch inmates, identified by number, put through their paces in an elaborate game of punitive depersonalization.
These young Marines, whose crimes are never revealed, aren't allowed to speak to anyone but the guards. Whenever leaving or entering their cage-like confines, they must loudly request permission "to cross the white line, sir." They're routinely searched, verbally and physically abused, and forced to execute their orders (to shower, dress, sanitize the barracks) with a mechanical precision that's terrifying to behold.
It's the kind of pure performance piece that I'd recommend strongly to adventurous theatergoers but that I'd advise traditionalists, like the man blocking my exit, to investigate ahead of time so they knew what they're getting into.
So how did I answer my insistent new acquaintance? "Maybe it's not about a 'point' but an experience," I suggested -- an idea he seemed receptive to exploring.
Anti-literary performance of this kind, I fumbled to explain, can't be boiled down to a paraphrase. There isn't a nugget of moral wisdom ready for extraction. "The Brig" invites you instead to undergo the daily life of the prisoners, to vicariously participate in their tedium and humiliation. The challenge to authority and its warmongering ways is implicit rather than explicit.
Not satisfied with my answer, the man said he had served five years in the Army and had never seen anything like what was depicted on stage. I replied that he must have been a good soldier but that this brig was apparently based on an actual one. What's more, there was a connection being made between these brainwashing rituals of conformity and the military experience in general.
The program, which includes a list of the brig regulations, contains a note by the playwright contending that "the horrible extremes . . . stood as an example of consequence to those who would not, could not, or wished not to conform to the rigid routines of the Third Marines."
But before I could fully articulate all this, the man realized he had left something behind at his seat. Our conversation was over. There was no time to mention that the formalized rules borrowed from the Marines had opened up avenues of choreographic expression that are still being traversed by certain factions of today's avant-garde.
No, I'm not floating the notion that the armed services are the source of much theatrical experiment. But the practice of building a piece on theatrical structures rather than on plot elements is part of the legacy of the Living Theatre's groundbreaking staging of "The Brig."
One notable beneficiary is the Wooster Group, the three-decade-old company of pioneering postmoderns whose multimedia exploration of "Hamlet" was presented this winter at REDCAT. Anyone holding out for the usual Shakespeare shakedown would have been sorely disappointed.
This troupe doesn't so much revive classics as collide with them, and its "Hamlet" went beyond the existing quartos to confront the film version of Richard Burton's 1964 Broadway portrayal. In karaoke splendor, the onstage cast competed with its predecessors, who appeared on screens and monitors in a snowy cinematic peekaboo.
Even for most hard-core Wooster boosters, the production was more scenically seductive than illuminating. The artistic through-line obviously wasn't about sifting soliloquies but throwing slanted light on the haunting nature of live performance. The group, you might say, was engaging in Ouija board contact with the specter of another theatrical interpretation. But the real distinction here was the rigorous commitment to a house style that has an uncanny way of revealing the hidden depths of surfaces.
Susan Sontag, an inveterate theatergoer during her lifetime, used to say that Elizabeth LeCompte, the auteur behind the Wooster Group, was the director she most admired in America. In her sage view, LeCompte should be lauded not just for establishing an ensemble of "brilliant performers" but also for honing a "real theater instrument."
Like pornography, "a real theater instrument" is not easy to define, but you undoubtedly know it when you see it. One such instance occurred last fall at UCLA Live with "Ten Chi," a stunning cross-cultural collage by the dark lady of German dance-theater, Pina Bausch.
Too often the magic of dance is narrowly attributed to the carefully trained bodies in motion. But in her extended thematic meditations, Bausch draws out the personalities of those in her company, exploiting their distinctive physical presences as well as their spiritual essences with a visionary meticulousness.
There's something usually quite rarefied about such theatrically assembled works. The audience, for the most part, is the already initiated or the intrepid few willing to stretch their performing arts paradigms, while more mainstream attendees are typically left scratching their heads. Recall what happened when Robert Wilson's "The Black Rider" played at the Ahmanson Theatre and subscribers unaccustomed to the stylized storytelling were reported to be leaving in angry droves, some before intermission.
Perhaps this accounts for why the new breed of innovators seems to be rebelling against the example of their sometimes obscure forerunners. Yearning for wider appreciation, these artists want their avant-garde attitude and their accessibility too.
Alex Timbers, the artistic director of the wildly inventive Les Freres Corbusier, has taken his company's anti-elitist ethic a step further in "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," which had its world premiere in January at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
A collaboration with composer Michael Friedman, this rock lampoon tells the story of the man who made it to the White House on a platform that appealed directly to the fears and desires of everyday 19th century Americans. And likewise the show wants to win over 21st century theatergoers not immune to irreverent silliness.
Will Power's "The Seven," currently running at La Jolla Playhouse, is another example of the inclusive embrace of iPod-era mavericks. The piece, a hip-hop translation of a musty tragedy by Aeschylus that Power developed with director Jo Bonney, works overtime to lasso in a younger audience. The only people allowed to feel alienated are those with an aversion to off-color words and hand gestures.
Personally, I'm of two minds about the populist trend. On the one hand, who doesn't like to be entertained? (Theater shouldn't turn into advanced geometry.) But on the other, the loss of uncompromising old-school discipline is regrettable.
Postmodern performance, like postmodern poetry, may have become too austere, not to say navel-gazing. But if you check out "The Brig" -- and anyone who cares about the history of the American avant-garde should high-tail it over to the Odyssey -- you may grow to treasure the clean, vigorous lines of the conception and execution.
The production may deprive us of a pithy message. But it proves that magnificently pulled off severity can have its own consciousness-raising rewards.