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WINNERS OF ‘THE GAMES’

Imagine some post-apocalyptic future in which language and gesture have ceased to have meaning and life has become a long quest to rediscover the sources that used to order human communication.

That’s the starting point for “The Games,” the music/theater work by Meredith Monk and Ping Chong that will have its Los Angeles premiere for one performance only on Wednesday at Royce Hall, UCLA.

“The Games” is a science-fiction musical spectacle about the perpetual re-enactment of social, political and cultural hierarchies by human beings, said Meredith Monk.

“To me, this is very much a piece about loss, very much about caring and being attentive to what we have, to the little things we don’t even think about--like a cup of coffee. It’s really a morality tale.”

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Staged on a futuristic set designed by Yoshio Yabara that is part spaceship--brightly polished metal walls and high-tech slide images--and part sports arena, the performance shows the struggles of a group of survivors who are condemned to be the players in a sort of post-nuclear Olympics.

Conducted by a taskmaster (played by Monk) who is at first charming and seductive and later as malevolent as a demonic rock star, the players are put through games of “memory,” “migration” and “fear"--games that shift ambiguously between children’s party pastimes (Pin the Tail on the Donkey or Musical Chairs) and mortal combat.

Played and sung to Monk’s elegant, often brooding music, these deadly competitions take us into a sinister world of futuristic space colonies and totalitarian banana republics. The players are just as likely to break out into the primitive rhythmic grunts and howls that Monk’s music is noted for as they are to be quizzed about what they remember from their lives before the nuclear holocaust.

“I call it a parable of human forgetfulness,” said Chong, whose own performances often ruminate on the inability of language to describe human experience.

“It’s a metaphor for structuring society. At the end of the show, you can either see it as a post-apocalyptic arrival on a new planet or as a reenactment of the mistakes made on Earth. Either way, the players have the games on their backs and they’re about to repeat the same old mistakes, the same old social and political games, so to speak.”

“The Games” was first commissioned in 1984 by Berlin Schaubuehne Theater (and later revived for the “Next Wave” festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music). Monk and Chong at first thought they would make a piece about a lost colony that had been presumed to have disappeared but, in fact, was massacred by Indians.

“Originally, we were thinking of going into the past,” said Chong, but once he and Monk realized that the year was 1984, “we decided to go into the future and look back at the present.

“It would have been hard not to see that it was 1984, the year of Orwell’s novel and also the year of the Olympics,” Monk said, “but I think the political impetus really came much more from making the piece in Berlin in 1983.

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“It was the autumn that the Pershing missiles were being installed and there was a lot of political action going on. Actors were coming in to rehearsals saying that their friends had told them that the American troops in West Germany were doing maneuvers for fast, mass gravedigging and there were many, many protests. We wanted to get that in there but we also wanted to get the resonance of Fascist Germany in the ‘30s, too.”

In many ways, the explicit moral and political tone of “The Games” represents an unusual departure for Monk and Chong, both of whom are often noted for making performances individually about the opacity and complexity of everyday life.

For example, Chong’s last performance, “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Darkness,” was about a bunch of creepy yuppies who also happened to be vampires and, of late, Monk mainly has restricted herself to her musical work.

“When you’re overly political you risk losing that ambiguity that good art is always about,” said Chong, whose form of multimedia theater, bricolages, often plays ironically with issues of alienation and foreignness.

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“In this case, I felt I wanted to take that risk artistically. Some people say that ‘The Games’ isn’t as subtle as some of our other things, but I think it was important to make a statement of conscience in this case. The question here is: Does politics come first or does art? Sometimes, as an artist, I feel like suspending the question.”

For Monk, the recipient of numerous Guggenheim grants, Obie and Bessie awards for both music, theater and film, the political orientation of “The Games” was closely related to certain changes in the way she has recently started to view her theater.

“I was going through a period when I’d been working 15 years and I’d done ‘Quarry,’ which is as far as I thought I could go in a theater form, and I started asking: What does an artist do in society anyway? I was in a real doubting period about my function in the community.”

Monk said she has exorcised the explicitly political tone that distinguishes “The Games” from her more recent work, but her next major project, “Book of Days,” a feature film about medieval Jewish villages, seems to tread on remarkably similar ground--the failure of humans to learn from history.

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“I feel that it’s a very anarchistic time,” said Monk.

“Year by year, the manifestations are different. But with all the terrorist activity, people are getting so scared they won’t even travel. Instead of feeling, ‘I have a link with these people in Paris or in Rio or wherever,’ one has a lot more hesitation in affirming that link by actually going there.

“I can take that to its worst conclusion: Everybody will stay put, put on blinders again and the communication will become lost. Instead of a global village mentality, we’ll return to a village mentality.”

In effect, she seems to be saying: We humans are condemned to our perpetual and tragic addiction to playing the same old games.

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