Nine years ago, a small radical-theater collective from Budapest came to this country fleeing the censorship of the Hungarian authorities, looking for a new home in the New World.
Dressed like hippies, with thick accents and strange premonitions of America as a land of gangsters and Andy Warhol look-alikes, they called themselves Squat Theatre. They planned to make performances that would be as startling and untamed as the very streets of New York City they suddenly found themselves walking.
Fortunately, rents happened to be relatively inexpensive in New York nine years ago. A two-story storefront on West 23rd Street proved just big enough for the six adults and four children that then made up the collective. With its large plate-glass window looking onto the street, the storefront seemed the perfect setting for bringing the chaotic violence of the city's streets directly into the theater.
Faked gangland murders, blazing fires, blaring pop music and kidnapings of passers-by became known as the trademarks of Squat's radical theater, in performances such as "Pig Child Fire," "Andy Warhol's Last Love" and "Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free." Occasionally, the real police were called in when someone on the street thought they were seeing an actual crime.
It was enough to make even the most jaded New Yorkers peer inquisitively through the large plate-glass window. If it seemed somewhat dangerous to see people brandishing guns from off the street or flames licking the ceiling of the theater--and Squat was occasionally accused of such reckless endangerment--it didn't, eventually, seem to alarm anyone.
After all, spectators on either side of the plate-glass window never truly knew whose perspective was more real, more true to life. Whatever danger existed seemed to become subsumed in Squat's surreal theatrical vision. If anything, Squat found itself rewarded for taking such risks: That very first year, the collective received its first Obie award from the Village Voice.
Almost nine years and many awards later, Squat Theatre lost its lease on that infamous storefront. (It also lost all but three of its founding members--a loss the surviving members don't seem willing to comment on.) Now, for the first time, it has created a performance suited to more traditional theater. As a result, Los Angeles audiences will have their first chance to see the collective in its latest performance, "Dreamland Burns," Thursday and Friday at the Japan America Theatre.
"Dreamland Burns" turns the group's caustic confusion of theater and reality into a dreamy meditation on its adopted American context. Instead of a window looking onto the real world, a 45-minute black-and-white film, written and directed by Stephan Balint and starring his 20-year-old daughter Eszter, has been substituted. The film acts as a documentary of Eszter's character's day--a day in which she moves into her first apartment and loses her boyfriend (played by August Darnell of Kid Creole & the Coconuts), only to be confronted by a soothsayer taxi driver recently emigrated from Eastern Europe.
When at the end of the day the film ends, we are transported through a fiery scrim into the performance that is her dream--a dream in which the cab driver engineers her boyfriend's murder.
"You can imagine how after eight years of doing what we did in that storefront--looking out into the streets and finding endless Manhattan--how that ended up in the work," says Eszter, who has been in all of Squat's productions and who made her screen debut last year in Jim Jarmusch's surprise hit, "Stranger Than Paradise." (She has also done an episode on "Miami Vice.")
"But you can also imagine how scared we all felt with a traditional situation where the curtain rises and someone just walks on stage."
For her father, the move into a traditional theater space was fraught with difficulty.
"When you read in a book that Mr. Smith entered the room through the door, you do not even pay attention," Stephan says nervously, puffing a cigarette. "In the theater, when a door opens and Mr. Smith comes in, I just have to stand up and leave, because I usually just don't believe it."
With the storefront, he says, these hidebound conventions of theatrical realism were easy enough to subvert. "When Mr. Smith entered from the street, he was entering from a believably real world. But his action also became art. When Mr. Smith entered the storefront from the street, he only did so because he was in the piece."
The proper theatrical device for the more traditional setting of "Dreamland Burns" was found in Eva Buchmuller's notion to project the faces and voices from the film's characters onto life-size Duane Hanson-like papier-mache dummies. Buchmuller says he picked up the idea from a friend's visit to a Mormon church where film-on-dummy is used to resuscitate the prophet Joseph Smith. "We solved the problem by fictionalizing all the film elements into the performance," Stephan says. "You always have to deal with the characters not only by how they come into the stage--but also how they go out . We had to realize that the difference here was that we were going to make more of a narrative, with a real heroine and a story line you could follow."
"Dreamland Burns" also represents the collective's first work to be set entirely within the context of American culture. In Soviet Bloc countries, theater has radically different purposes and methods than in the West. Any theater that defines itself as an "alternative" in the Eastern Bloc must reach its audience by disguising its messages in a seemingly innocuous text. Interpretation and direction are as essential to a play as the paranoia that forces people to put their most intimate beliefs into the form of a code.
In Squat's early work this kind of thinking gave rise to subtexts that were provocative but often too well-hidden for Western audiences. "Pig Child Fire's" violence, for example, was intended more as homage to gangster films and film noir than to terrorism. In its own way, so was "Andy Warhol's Last Love," in which a clone of Andy Warhol meets a clone of the German terrorist Ulrike Meinhof.
"It's very hard to talk about the East," Stephan says. "It's too much a part of one's self, you can't really analyze it." Politics did once have a role in Squat's theater, he says, but now that interest has been subjected to a more general search for a very personal reading of American life.
"You use anything that you can grab to try to put things into a context that's funny or beautiful or exciting," Stephan explains. "In that sense, any politics we use is only to make something more lively.
"Already in Hungary, we mixed and built in these very concrete, almost factual, taken-from-life images or situations from media, from politics, from what have you, mixed with the more fantastic side of things.
"What we did, consciously or not, was to go so deliberately into the code as to detach ourselves from any concrete implications and all the symbolism that might be represented by it. We went all the way to the fantastic. So it was fantastic and very direct at the same time."
"That doesn't apply to us now," says Eszter. Stephan seems to disagree. "I'm not so sure," he says with a sigh. "You can't avoid people making a reading of our work. But it's not our job to make this reading. What we talk about is more like feelings taken from life, taken from culture, taken from politics. But now, it's completely subjective."