At the end of "The Ephemeral Is Eternal," a tiny model theater is brought on stage. A gong reverberates, a puff of smoke materializes, and under the gaze of a strapping executioner come "to finish off this play," the walls of the miniature playhouse tumble down.
It's a natural conclusion. Up to that point, the hour-long play, written by the Belgian artist-poet Michel Seuphor in 1926, when the Dada movement was at a high pitch, has done nothing but thumb its nose at traditional theater, logic and language. It's an intellectual's version of "Hellzapoppin'," music-hall for the nihilists born of World War I.
Never produced in Europe until 1968 and only rarely seen since, "The Ephemeral Is Eternal" is now getting its American premiere in the Hirshhorn Museum auditorium as part of the current "De Stijl" show. From the artist's point of view the distinguishing element will no doubt be the bold geometrical sets, designed by Piet Mondrian and reconstructed from vintage photographs and documents. Theatergoers will find this curious evening of abstraction and nonsense a virtual grab bag of ploys that were to make their way into the expressionistic theater and even later into the theater of the absurd.
A pair of actors, one in black, the other in white, play pantomime games with a handkerchief. A conductor wearing a shiny white bowler and shorts leads a chorus of six singers through arias of pure gibberish. A trio of dancers crosses the stage in sharp, mechanistic movements. A flashy actress, trailing a crinoline boa, struts her stuff, poses melodramatically and ultimately orders her backup men, a Japanese peddler and a Turkish peddler, to "Dribble, it's an order." They shimmy to the ground. She is banished from the stage.
Although there is no plot, a sign nonetheless announces, "The plot sickens." A chorus member sings, "You must go to Hungary to know what cold cuts really are," then slashes her throat with her finger. And a lecturer in flowing robes passes on the Dadaist creed (the best advice under the circumstances), "Don't strain yourself running after ideas. Words have no common sense."
Under the direction of Donn B. Murphy, this theatrical oddity has been given a production that is both lavish in its means and spare in its effects. The cast, if it doesn't quite possess the original spirit of anarchy, reproduces the gestures faithfully. What results is clearly in the nature of a museum piece, but it is sleek in its silliness and historically illuminating. It certainly serves as a reminder that there's really nothing new under the sun. The lecturer in "The Ephemeral Is Eternal" even says as much.
The production repeats tonight at 8 and on Saturday and Sunday at 1, 3 and 5 p.m.