New York

Time and Space Limited

West 19th Street Studio

Linda Mussmann’s Time & Space limited theater represents a decade-long attempt to continue the early Modernist credo in experimental performance art. Beginning in the early ’70s with the Modern classics (Henrik Ibsen, Bertolt Brecht, Jean Genet), Mussmann moved on to stagings of the nondramatic works of Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein. The shadow of the latter hangs over Mussmann’s latest phase, one in which her own fragmentary, elusive texts and the brooding musical accompaniment of Semih Firincioglu make up the principal material.

Avoidance & Peculiar—written, directed, choreographed, and designed by Mussmann—went the furthest she has yet gone toward a neo-Steinian drama. Merce Cunningham’s work seemed the forerunner of the dance style, and the music—played on both the piano’s keys and its strings, sometimes with paint brushes—evoked John Cage. But the “matter,” a pervasive, continuous, unresolved agitation over unspecified enigmas, was mapped out with a topography all its own. “It was all a matter of stones and emotions” was a phrase typical of the text’s emphatic ambiguity, and if Mussmann wasn’t saying what “it” was, she ambitiously outlined the surrounding atmosphere of rocky feeling as if she were groping for an essential object in a fog of contingent elements.

The set, a forest of slanting two-by-fours which reached from the floor to the high ceiling of the cavernous, black studio space, physically established the idea of Avoidance & Peculiar as a dispersed field of activity. Scattered clamp lamps provided a similar field of individual lights which faded up and down as the performers moved in and out of the different playing areas. These three women and one man wore beige, gray, and white costumes which looked futuristic, oriental, and androgynous at the same time. Their movements and relationships were similarly loaded yet vague. Accompanied by Firincioglu’s stormy score, the four chanted the quixotic lines of Mussmann’s fragmented, aphoristic text; meanwhile they stayed in constant motion, in a blend of Modern dance, ordinary movement, tai chi–influenced gestures, and other generic experimental-theater behavior such as the direct address and the repetitive sequence. Patterns were discernible in all this insistently singular action: like other good classical-Modernist works, Avoidance & Peculiar had a circular form, ending as it began, and there were continual references to a “She,” a sort of collective super-character whose adventures and thoughts seemed to be the ultimate subject of the dialogue.

Mussmann’s self-referential, sealed-off world can seem suffocatingly irritating. Avoidance & Peculiar sometimes reminded me of the preacher’s dictum, “A person all wrapped up in themself makes a mighty small package.” When the play’s piled-up modules of language, movement, music, and visual tableau eddied in repetitive, undifferentiated patterns which ebbed and flowed in no clear direction, there was a cloying, hothouse feeling about it, as though it were trying to complicate something simple.

Yet at times Avoidance & Peculiar gelled into piercing vignettes, abstract epiphanies which resembled the texture of Stein’s or Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness prose. The work’s conceptual underpinnings and stage dynamics may have been cerebral, but it offered moods and moments that saved it from collapsing into a pure esthetic workout for mental-puzzle-solvers.

John Howell