San Francisco

Lauren Elder

Theater Artaud

Although billed as “environmental theater,” Lauren Elder’s immensely ambitious multidisciplinary performances encompass far more than mere drama. Like her earlier work Off Limits, 1989, Surrender is a sprawling, archetypal story with a narrative thread that twists into knots at times, guiding the audience from event to dream to memory, but always wandering back to the story at hand. This temporal movement is echoed by the frequent physical relocation of both players and audience in and around the hangar-sized space of the theater. Surrender also shifts from spoken text to singing, chanting, and instrumental interludes.

The story, roughly speaking, is about Tom, a test pilot who negligently crashes his jet in the Nevada desert, killing his copilot and best friend, Petey. After encountering a young bike-riding Chicano boy at the crash site, Tom meets some very interesting characters who have chosen to live out in the middle of nowhere: a philosophical Russian archaeologist and former cosmonaut; a dreamily poetic Middle-Eastern astronomer; and a black woman gifted with formidable powers of healing and intuition. Tom’s encounters with each of these men and women, as well as a supporting cast of ghosts (Petey as well as Tom’s mother and father) are punctuated with sound and movement by separate male and female choruses.

From the first, Surrender drew in the audience, making it clear that the questions being asked were ones that all of us will have to find an answer for, sooner or later, within ourselves. These issues range from war resistance to wartime killing, from the loss and loneliness experienced by the families of soldiers, to the effects of radiation on the flora and fauna of the desert. Tom’s rigidity is confronted and eventually softened by what he sees, hears, and finally comes to accept: that he must take responsibility for his actions. In the end, he learns that despite the mistakes he has made in both his personal and professional life, he is not beyond redemption.

Two things held this dizzying montage of movement and sound together. First, the passionate enthusiasm and skillful performances of Elder’s company of collaborators, who made magic out of what could otherwise lapse into pedantic moralizing. Even more compelling than the story they told, though, was the visual design of the piece as a whole. Elder’s inventions, more sculpture and installation than “props” or “sets,” derived their power from a kind of can-do simplicity, rather than from gee-whiz high-tech effects. (A nighttime sky of stars, for instance, was represented by a huge dome-shaped mobile of bent bicycle wheels, all set in motion by the astronomer’s hand.) From one moment to the next, her objects and environments simultaneously spun the fantasy and confronted the audience with difficult truths.

In the opening sequence, staged in the street in front of the theater, flames shot alarmingly from what appeared to be the twisted tailsection of a plane. As Tom, injured and in shock, screamed, “Wake up, you son of a bitch!” at a body sprawled on the concrete, cascading sparks tumbled down the empty, dark street. The violence of the scene was all too real. Yet, when both players and audience trooped inside moments later, a small campfire burned on a makeshift stage, in front of a tent. The distance between audience and performers was temporarily restored. This was just a nightmare, a scary story: but one to which we must all surrender, if, like Tom, we are going to make peace with ourselves.

Maria Porges