Forum Gets a Line On Nonlinear Works

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 21, 2006

Some years ago, in a memorable TV bit called "Confuse-a-Cat," the clowns of Monty Python performed an insane sketch in which a business, which has the specialty of startling household pets out of their ennui, puts on an unhinged backyard production for a lethargic kitty.

The off-the-wall cast includes a constable, prizefighters, a man in a penguin suit who rides a pogo stick, and a trash-bin lid. The whole thing is bottomlessly meaningless, a joke on absurdism itself. (The cat is declared cured -- in other words, confused -- by virtue of its wandering blithely away from the stage.)

The spirit of "Confuse-a-Cat" is alive and well in "The Gas Heart," one of the short plays in an eccentric if impressively polished double bill at the Warehouse Theater. As staged by the academically adventurous Kathleen Akerley, the surrealist "Gas Heart" -- the work of the early 20th-century dadaist Tristan Tzara -- throws open a window on the brand of artistic nihilism that jars you out of your complacent need for accessibility.

"The Gas Heart" is paired with Michael Dove's staging of "Hamletmachine," Heiner Mueller's modernistic embellishment of Shakespeare, under the auspices of a young company, Forum Theatre and Dance, that is seeking to expose audiences to a nonlinear theatrical style that is underrepresented on local stages. As a curiosity, then, the evening has merit, showing you some of the less concrete ways in which theater can tap into the sociopolitical undercurrents of its time. And at a half-hour apiece, the plays are not so laborious that you're left to squirm in your seat.

Tzara, a founder of a movement born of a reaction against bourgeois values and the alienating effects of World War I, was the first to say that "The Gas Heart" had no meaning. With a disciplined ensemble, Akerley draws a distinction here between meaning and significance. The cast of six, playing parts of a face -- eyebrow, eye, ear, nose, mouth and neck -- recites lyrical non sequiturs while posing on metal scaffolding.

As you watch the disjointed activity -- the program indicates that the play is divided into what seem randomly titled segments, such as "The eye of the beholder opens to signifiers and other temporarily amusing games" -- you're reminded of the limitations of language and gesture to explain the human animal.

The second offering is a brisk version of Mueller's 1979 experimental piece, "Hamletmachine." With references to everything from Coca-Cola to "Dr. Zhivago," the play distills the powerful oratory of the original through a modernist filter. It's noteworthy, especially, for Hugh T. Owen's Hamlet.

Ultimately, though, playgoers could not be faulted if, in spite of all the energetic theatricality, they weren't left any more enlightened than that enervated cat.

The Gas Heart, by Tristan Tzara, translated by Steven Perry. Directed by Kathleen Akerley.

Hamletmachine, by Heiner Mueller, translated by Carl Weber. Directed by Michael Dove. Lighting, Paul Frydrychowski; costumes, Debra Kim Sivigny; sound, Kenneth Gilbert; set, Akerley and Dove. With Abby Wood, Fiona Blackshaw, Grady Weatherford, Jay Hardee, Alexander Strain. Through Feb. 5 at Warehouse Theater, 1021 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-518-9516 or visit .

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