New York

Squat Theatre, Dreamland Burns

In one of the first scenes of the 45-minute film that opens Dreamland Burns, 1985, two men riding in a truck banter about sex and death, and are then revealed to be minor characters and mere lugs, furniture movers who are relocating a young woman from her suburban home to a Manhattan apartment. It’s a comic-mythic Squat Theatre twist, familiar from their previous multimedia performance works, all of which are about an “America” that is part symbol, part cartoon, and part primal urge. Overall, it’s more a dreamlike state of mind than a realistic portrait of an actual place. The America of this Hungarian expatriate theater group is a close cousin of Franz Kafka’s Amerika, another surreal landscape in which off-the-wall observations are brought to vivid life by deadpan humor and implicit moralizing to create a terrifically skewed but somehow essentially accurate take on American myths. Like Kafka, Squat Theatre takes “the pure products of America [that] go crazy” (William Carlos Williams) and, after running them through their Central European sensibility, present an America at once familiar and bizarre.

The opening film is more “realistic” than any of the live action that follows. Alexandra, the young woman who moves into her own apartment, is ditched by her boyfriend, picked up by a palm-reading cabbie, sings a duet of “Let’s Get It On” with an out-of-it wino, and finally collapses at the film’s end into exhausted sleep. As Alexandra, Eszter Balint becomes the Anna Karina of the avant-garde theater, by turns slyly comic and touchingly vulnerable, with an aura of mystery and adventure that is totally alluring. Her picaresque cinematic adventures are the ground from which springs a bolus of associative images and actions.

In its second half Dreamland Burns becomes a live dream. Events are exaggerated, they happen either too fast or too slowly and veer off in unexpected directions. Characters from the film show up on stage as live actors; other characters turn into mannequins, which are animated by film projections of faces and taped dialogue. All of them mutate, grow strange, and lead the heroine into non sequitur episodes that resonate the film’s themes. The taxi driver turns psycho, invading Alexandra’s apartment to convince her to star in his unproduced movie, a saga of rape and murder; his last “magic trick” leaves her paralyzed in her chair. The boyfriend, a literal dummy and perhaps a figurative one too, “sings” via an audio tape, then is cut open, and weapons and money are extracted from his cardboard back. The wino mannequin turns into a chatty, knowing philosopher. Even the environment itself comes to life. Furniture and clothing rain from the ceiling; a Checker cab pops up from the floor; a tropical background evolves into Alexandra’s apartment, then a nightclub, then an illuminated New York skyline (the magical sets were designed by painter Eva Buchmuller). Finally, a madonna with a neon halo descends, and this dream play is over.

The Squat Theatre troupe carries off this unwieldy mélange with its usual, unlikely style of matter-of-fact performing and drop-dead coups de théâtre. The piece’s portentous meanings, which spray off in every direction in the overdetermined fashion of a Kafka novel, explode in the mind exactly as they should, not as conceptual thought-speak but like depth charges dropped into the subconscious in the manner of Kafka’s ideal art “an axe for the frozen sea within us.” Dreamland Burns has the clarity, sheer drama, outrageous humor, and on-target truths that the best dreams offer.

John Howell