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A Chaotic Plaint for Our Fouled Nest : ‘Minamata’ is a compelling, indulgent investigation of ecological apocalypse

Brecht said about Kafka that if you listen too hard you don’t see. I wanted people to see.

--Reza Abdoh

A grim litany of facts comes over the loudspeakers in a steady drone as the audience files into the theater. It lists the dates of the first recorded natural disasters, the first human calamities, the first heart attack.

As the lights go down, a man with a shriveled arm limps on stage gazing unsmilingly at the audience. “Hi,” he begins, dispassionately. “The law, Aristotle insisted, is reason free from passion. . . . " Then he outlines what this piece will try to be about, identifying himself as a lawyer who will also play a dead man. “It gets confusing,” he concedes. “My job is to deconfuse,” he says--and leaves.

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The stage is bare now except for three axes, suspended in midair. Very still. Three people enter, seize the handles and start hacking--audibly--at the air. Three trees outlined on the back wall above them tilt with every blow. With the last one, they crash to the ground.

Is this the fall of civilization? The murder of hope? The end of life? How you interpret it is your own affair, but the image is memorable. So is the glut of images that follow--haunting, violent, graphically sexual, tender, pitiable, lyrical, humorous and . . . confusing.

We were warned, of course.

It’s a good thing creator/director Reza Abdoh won’t explain his “Minamata” (though he will talk around it--in person and in the souvenir program). He shouldn’t and probably couldn’t. Not if what you want is reasonable explanation. This event is to be experienced--like Maguy Marin’s “Cinderella,” Robert Wilson’s “Einstein on the Beach,” Tadeusz Kantor’s “Wielopole, Wielopole” or Richard Foreman’s Ontological Hysterical Theatre.

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For this and other reasons Abdoh’s flight of theatrical impressionism at the Los Angeles Theatre Center is causing a stir. It’s the first spectacle of its kind and caliber to have been developed entirely in Los Angeles. It treats a subject that is always in the news yet rarely synthesized through art. And it compels attention by hurling images and sounds at its audience like an automatic tennis server gone berserk.

The script, dealing with ecological apocalypse, was written by Abdoh with Mira-Lani Oglesby (after he and his original partner, playwright Marlane Meyer, decided they were artistically too far apart to work together). But it’s Abdoh’s baby from there on out: He shaped and chiseled “Minamata,” with the help of his actors, designers, composers, musicians and a choreographer.

The impulse for the piece was the tragedy at Minamata, a Japanese fishing village where a factory took up residence in the late ‘40s and began dumping mercury into the waters of the bay. First the fish became contaminated, then the cats who ate the fish and finally the villagers and their children.

In Abdoh’s piece, however, this industrial accident is merely the springboard for a wider indictment of man’s cannibalism. “Our lives are a continuing succession of opportunities for survival,” drones the text, while the evidence mounts that man continues to foul his nest and subvert his future. “Quietly, death becomes a commodity,” we hear. Over and over.

Leitmotifs, counterpoint and eclecticism are keys to Abdoh’s staggering creation. Words are only one component of the language spoken here. Image, sound, mood, color, tone are the others.

Sequences quicken and tumble like events at a five-ring circus. They get harder to absorb as the spectacle gains momentum, whirring by, spoken or sung--always on more than one track, always to the accompaniment of an assortment of sound or music, always backed by odd and compelling projections: Eyes that turn into eggs, eggs that crack to release yolks, hammers and nails swallowed by fish. A sense of unnatural doings.

With scarcely a transition, we go from corporate types in suits and ties moving in regimental formation to a comical cocktail party among four neurotics, to the simulated live birth of a full-grown naked man (the extraordinary Ken Roht) playing Alice, the deformed daughter of adoring, then despairing, then enraged and finally murderous parents.

(Warning: This not a show for the squeamish or the easily embarrassed. It has everything from nudity to toilet scenes to simulated slashed throats and sex acts).

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“I’m interested in the physicality of ideas,” says Abdoh. “The whole notion of decapitation, of castration, of severing one part of one’s body or soul and still allowing it to flower--a Phoenix from the ashes--interests me. History is loss. A baby is a loss of one’s own flesh given to the larger universe. . . . “

So heads pop up from the floor. A corporate executive recites lame excuses for industrial abuses from an elevator-like box at the top of the proscenium. A bearded lady in top hat turns animals into skeletons. All the while, traditional and original music (some by Jim Berenholtz, some by Frederick Myrow) contrasts with the visuals.

Sometimes a lone cellist plays sweet, sorrowful strains at a corner of the stage. Sometimes a performer on electric guitar accompanies the singers. Always there is an insistent score that segues undeterred from the percussive sounds of an African Pygmy chant to “Tea for Two” or the theme of “The Beverly Hillbillies” sung in Japanese. The performance climaxes in a sonorous crescendo mass (by Myrow) that underscores the next-to-last scene of the piece much the way Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings supported and enhanced the battle sequences in “Platoon.”

Fantastic. Excessive. Indulgent. And not. The major problem with “Minamata” at the moment is its plurality. Too much happens too fast or simultaneously. It is painted on too many emotional levels to be absorbed at one sitting. Rampant abundance keeps us from focusing. And while this kind of panoramic display can keep you fascinated, it doesn’t always involve you.

The result: Seeing “Minamata” once is simply not enough. Either tickets should be validated twice, accommodating anyone who wishes to return, or the show must be rigorously edited. At 2 1.4 hours without intermission, the latter is the more practical idea.

But is it the better one?

It is only on second viewing that the show’s beauty, communicated by osmosis rather than apprehension, begins to set in. Individual scenes and moments may remain elusive, but an oddly coherent and uplifting essence emanates from the whole. In time, it is the sum of the disparate parts that works. In time, we realize that, our own frustrations notwithstanding, this is a breakthrough for the artist.

“Reality can only be grasped indirectly,” says the 25-year-old Abdoh, who was born in Iran and grew up in England and France and whose favorite language is Farsi. His mixed cultural background finds its way into his work, leaving open the possibility that the work has both the fascination and alienation of a less familiar (and more universal?) sensibility.

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He tells us “Minamata” was gestated for a year and rehearsed for 11 weeks and that it could not have been done without the support system and budget of an institutional theater. This is Abdoh’s second piece at LATC. The first was more traditional.

He staged two David Henry Hwang one-acts there in 1986: “As the Crow Flies” and “The Sound of a Voice.” In other locales he did a “King Oedipus” and Kopi’s “Eva Peron,” “Rusty Sat on a Hill One Dawn and Watched the Moon Go Down” and “The Peep Show,” a flawed experiment written with Oglesby that took place in the different rooms of a motel--a real motel, not a set design.

“Minamata” is the first full-fledged, rigorously structured performance piece to emerge from his unrestricted (others call it unrestrained) talent--which doesn’t keep him from showing up at every performance, still fashioning, still refining (“There is no other way for me to work but continuously.”)

Does he ever “jell” his pieces?

“Theater is so ephemeral that the whole idea of ‘jelling’ (finishing) is antithetical. I never satisfy myself. The task of artists is to constantly try to dissolve their own genres. If you don’t, you won’t know what’s beyond the bridge.”

With such intense preoccupation with image, can film be far behind? Film is voyeuristic. So is Abdoh. There’s a television camera that descends from the grid in “Minamata,” focusing by turns on the audience and on the stage. It is “not so much a symbol as a sign of being observed,” says Abdoh. “Everyone is always observing everyone else. It has that kind of pornographic angle. We are always looking through a keyhole.”

Of the hammer and nails projected on the back wall he says: “A nail is always being put somewhere. A hammer always follows. We’re always designated to perform certain functions. In my topography I see patterns of perpetual aggression.”

Of the recurring images of eggs and eyes: “It’s a way of restoring timelessness. Our history is a process of endless decay.”

But there is hope. The piece ends on a pastoral tableau. “I can’t completely succumb to the notion of paradise lost,” says Abdoh. “No matter how much we are pulled into the vortex of solitude, it’s our duty to search for (solutions), to not give up the quest.”

And so renewal sets in. Its turbulence over, “Minamata” ends on a scene of considerable peace and beauty. The three trees cut down at the beginning are standing in the center of the village, righted again. It is night. Lights glow in the house. A train weaves down the track. A kid rides a bike, a swing is swinging, a windmill windmilling, snow snowing, a cello celling--and a pineapple sherbet moon above is very large, very bright, very full.

But it’s not over until the bearded lady doffs her top hat--and bows. . . .


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