New York

Falso Movimento, Hesitate and Demonstrate

La MaMa E.T.C., The Public Theater

Remember the “theater of images,” the catchall phrase describing theater that was more cinematic and painterly than conventionally dramatic? Rooted in the nonlinear ’60s, the works of Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, and Mabou Mines, among others, grafted the complex machinery and the elliptic, imagistic style of media technology as well as the visual look of contemporary painting and sculpture onto their respective theatrical backgrounds (Bertolt Brecht,Samuel Beckett, Jerzy Grotowski, performance art). This provocative and still vital idea appeared in its current European version in recent shows by Italian and English companies.

Like Rome’s La Gaia Scienza and Florence’s Magazzini Criminali, Naples’ Falso Movimento presents what is called a “media theater,” a collagelike assemblage in which slides, film, and taped music create “situations” or environments for the actions, mostly dance and mimelike movement, of the performers. The relentlessly high-energy Tango Glaciale (Ice-cold tango) is equal parts movie-nostalgic and rock music–New Wavish, eclectic in its sources and references (Peter Kubelka’s films and Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, cartoons and the paintings of David Hockney), and insouciantly nonchalant as to its point. Driven by a continuous musical soundtrack, the three performers (one woman, two men) bop, wriggle, thrash, and fling themselves through a random-seeming visual schema of slides and film representing first an urban landscape and then, in the second half, interiors in a flashily modish Italian house.

Many of the skits for these three anonymous “characters” are visually arresting: for example, an opening dance duet with an unwieldy vacuum cleaner which looks like R2D2, a lip-synced saxophone solo which sparks two jitterbuggers who cavort in front of a hyperrealistic ’40s city skyline, a stream of cardboard cars descending into a Hockneyish swimming pool cutout, or a dance in which the trio, in front of huge slides of flowers, move to a metronomic beat they clack out with hedge clippers. But this optical buffet stretches out in time and loses pressure as it goes on, slowly devolving into a jumble of flailing, aimless activity. “It’s about life,” said Tomas Arana, the single American in the group, in a New York Times interview; “It’s hard to explain.” Well, yes, but even cartoons like Bugs Bunny, which Tango Glaciale resembles as much as anything, have some dramatic thread—defined characters, a central conflict—which tie the whole bolus together. If Arana meant “life” as in Neapolitan daily life, he may have a point; Tango Glaciale also resembles the urban chaos of that ravishingly beautiful but terrifyingly anarchic city.

Goodnight Ladies is an impeccably staged, stunningly lit, abstracted, Agatha Christie–ish movie/play which coheres not just through its moody, ’40sish atmosphere but also through its crisply clichéd stock mystery types and archetypal suspense confrontations. Hesitate and Demonstrate put this across with hardly any dialogue—there are four negligible lines in the hour-long spectacle. The “story” seems to concern an unidentified mystery woman who travels constantly in Europe, apparently both hunter and hunted, and who is menaced by a standard panoply of grim males—waiters, railway conductors, pawnshop brokers, thieves, and bad guys in trenchcoats. Familiar yet mysterious incidents take place: jewels are stolen, messages are passed in cigarette stubs, faces and shadows appear at windows, and railroad cars and hotel rooms shelter furtive comings and goings, all in the European intellectual style in which an abstracted thriller is the vehicle for existential dread and confusion (think of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville). But the detached conceptualism of these distilled “Thin Man” conceits dulls any real, visceral thrill. And Goodnight Ladies is as well mannered as it is well dressed: presented “straight,” with panache, and in perfect period garb, this knowing act pulls the thriller out of the contemporary alley of disillusionment and pervasive violence, and puts it back into the arty English garden of stylish curiosity.

What is thrilling throughout Goodnight Ladies, however, is the incredibly deft, seamless production. Cuts between scenes are quick and crisp, whether done with ingenious props—my favorite is the toy train that chugs around a cafe table to set up train-travel scenes performed in a railway car mockup—or, as more often the case, with some of the most technically accomplished, complex, expressive, and simply unusual lighting effects on any stage. Designed by Tom Donnellan, the noir-ish light is like an intangible but restlessly active and powerful character; it probes, it shines from unexpected angles and locations, it conceals and reveals, it highlights and underlines, it is both hot spot and hazy shadow. Goodnight Ladies needs only some “quotes” around its polished performances and production detail, some structural or psychological take on its facsimile exterior, to lay bare the punch in its tailor’s-dummy tableaux.

John Howell