New York

Ping Chong, Brightness

La Mama E.T.C.

Ping Chong’s forte is the creation of ambience, but there’s always a message behind his beautiful, staged pictures. Though his social consciousness sometimes seems at odds with his rather whimsical sensibility, Ping Chong’s Brightness, described in the program as “a theater work for the fin de siècle,” uses that very tension to generate pathos. This is vaudeville drenched in melancholy.

A ringmaster dressed in bright white, her peaked witch’s hat lit from within, welcomes us cheerfully to “the circus maximus of the millenium,” alluding to a world of war and plague just outside. As she promises acts that will both dazzle and frazzle us––“Hold on to your entrails!”––her giddiness begins to seem part of a global hysteria. “Bubo” she’s called, suggesting bubonic plague. In the blackouts between acts, we hear cannonfire. This is a culture of the dead and disappeared. Perhaps even spectatorship is a thing of the past, as Bubo makes her entrance to canned applause.

The acts themselves are eviscerated entertainments, and from the shell of each old bit arises some enigmatic ritual of mourning or nostalgia. In a section called “Lesquce,” two masked men in tight knee-pants lay down gold plates in a double row, then pick them back up as they run diagonally across the stage. Bubo observes that their absurd game “led to the downfall of the culture,” though she never explains why. Every act resonates with some intimation of mortality. The one-man band coaxes a harsh braying from his plastic instrument, which sounds like a Tibetan horn, the vibration of the spheres. Four performers appear with Indian clubs they never juggle; slowly they raise and lower and wave them, as if signaling by semaphore.

Even the most overt lamentations have a military precision. Three performers enter in white fur coats. They go through the motions of bundling up. They stare at their shoes or off into space. They do so little for so long that the smallest gestures become amplified. Accompanied by a tape loop of Arvo Pärt at his most elegiac, they appear to be waiting for something. “The war of the spirit is escalating,” Bubo tells us a bit later, with the forced cheer of a carnival barker. The subtext is AIDS and a general fin-de-millenium panic, as she describes a sci-fi landscape of repression and alienation where “the gentry picnic atop blackened corpses.”

An awkward last scene reduces Brightness to a world much like ours. “Nothing was the same after the war,” declares Ms. Stardust, a nightclub performer. “The brightness left us and we were all so cold.” This chanteuse in a red dress is giving her last performance in the midst of another war, and she wonders what ever happened to the circus and to Bubo. Her very appearance indicates that even metaphors like Bubo are now dead.

C. Carr