New York

Mabou Mines, “Imagination Dead Imagine”

The Performing Garage

The Mabou Mines theater company has been applying its increasingly complex high-tech sensibility to Samuel Beckett’s increasingly minimalist “dramaticules” since the mid ’60s; in recent years the group has staged the author’s brief prose pieces as well, somehow finding original, striking theatrical conceits that are simultaneously audaciously innovative and faithful to Beckett’s meticulous texts. The latest such production is Imagination Dead Imagine, one of those Latinate, liturgical fragments through which Beckett now transmits his relentless vision of life as an unending secular spell in an unspecified circle of hellish consciousness. (“Hell is other thoughts,” a Sartrean gloss might read.) In the one long paragraph of this text, Beckett outlines an obviously allegorical yet stubbornly literal universe with the clinical dispassion of a coroner of the soul. Imagination describes a bleak domed environment, delineating in precise terms the qualities of its light and temperature and their effects on two inhabitants, one male and one female, in a comalike condition of suspended animation.

To stage this sketch, Mabou Mines deployed a small array of sophisticated technology, and, one imagines, a considerable sum of money. That the result is a 14-minute-long performance which can be viewed by twenty or so spectators at a sitting seems at first incongruous, but is finally as wondrous as the group’s mesmerizing theatrical equivalent for Beckett’s singular landscape. Though brief and elusive, the performance experience of Imagination Dead Imagine packs more vertiginous thought and disorienting feeling into its miniaturist scale than many longer, more elaborate performances.

The coup de theatre here is that Imagination Dead Imagine is staged as a son et lumière show consisting in its entirety of a holographic image reclining on a bier. While lighting variations effectively animate the sepulcher’s ornate modelings, the hologram of a young girl in a gown slowly turns so that she is seen from all sides. A recorded voice reads the text, and, periodically, the introductory chords of John Lennon’s ballad “Imagine” echo faintly.

No performance experience prepares a viewer for watching this hologram. It rotates, it seems to move, but no, it only repeats itself—it’s moving but it’s not. Three-dimensional, it communicates more than a photograph or film image, but less than a living person. If these allusions serve a metaphoric double duty, that’s no accident: the hologram is a precise, concrete, objective correlative for the death-in-life experience described in Beckett’s writing.

Then, just when you begin to wonder whether this static scene is going to go somewhere in its added dimension of time, Lennon’s song comes up full volume as a finale. As an obvious cliché, but an extremely affecting one, this is a typical Mabou Mines ploy, a counterpointing of Beckett’s bleak vision and Lennon’s idealism. That juxtaposition is supposed to create a third possibility, and it does: a magical meditation on the mystery of existence. Imagination Dead Imagine indeed. The wonder of thought has rarely been so hypnotically translated into a theatrical event. And so discreetly: the principal “players”—director Ruth Maleczech, voice Ruth Nelson, holographic figure Clove 333 Galilee, designers Linda Hartinian and L.B. Dallas—are nowhere to be seen.

John Howell