Every once in a while, just when you're thinking that live theater (or dance or music or movies, for that matter) has gotten so banal and moribund that regeneration is impossible, along comes something so exciting, so original, so unexpected, it renews your faith in the artistic future.
Such a thing is "Autobahn," the madcap multimedia production being presented by the Adaptors at Baltimore's Theatre Project. The Adaptors are a "movement theater" group, founded in 1982, based in New York, directed by Tony Brown and Kari Margolis. Brown and Margolis met in the studios of "new mime" guru Etienne Decroux in Paris about a decade ago. They and their troupe of nine mime-actors command an extraordinary range of skills involving gesture, movement, song and speech.
The particular way in which the Adaptors use their bodies -- to suggest character, to define emotion, to outline action, to stylize an entire cultural milieu -- is hard to describe because it is so novel and individual. There's not much dialogue in "Autobahn," but you don't miss it because the mime is the dialogue -- these bodies "speak" more eloquently than words.
"Autobahn" is extremely funny, but its wit is barbed with a venomous social and political insight of rare acuity. Its 11 scenes and 80-minute length cut a wide swath through technological, esthetic and moral issues, with the aid of amazingly pungent "mood" music performed live by Neil Alexander and Charles Haynes, as well as video, sound tracks, photography, costumes and wildly inventive props.
"Ladies and gentlemen," reads a program note, "fasten your seatbelts; you are about to enter onto the 'Autobahn.' Like the West German speedway of the same name, 'Autobahn' takes a look at life from the fast lane, sweeping you through a potpourri of impressions of our recent past and our uncertain future." It's as good a characterization as any for a work that's essentially a nonlinear succession of images that nonetheless has a crazy dream logic of its own.
The opening presents a panorama containing a woman who's videotaping the audience (three monitors display the results), a trio of astronauts manipulating space tubing, a mother with a perambulator, a man cooking hot dogs on a barbecue, a gardener watering her plants, a sexy sunbather, and a woman playing with a puppy. The very next scene concerns victims of an atomic explosion.
In between, one actor gives an incredible impression of President Nixon welcoming the Apollo crew back to Earth. A later scene has a human "robot" of the '50s extolling the virtues of newly invented stereophonic sound. Others offer an ensemble of women dancing with irons and ironing boards; a charade about the arms race that pays riotous homage to Kurt Jooss' celebrated antiwar ballet of 1932, "The Green Table"; a quintet of women yielding themselves erotically to a hair dryer; and a child munching cornflakes from an overfilled bowl.
If this sounds wacky, it is. But it's a kind of wackiness laden with startling perception about human folly, desire, hope and delusion. "Autobahn" falls somewhere between the acid humour of Brecht-Weill on one side and the innovative performance art of people like Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson and Robert Wilson, on the other. For all its multimedia extravagance, it's intimate in scale and swift in development. It would be hard to exaggerate the virtuosity of the performers and the production as a whole.
"Autobahn" plays today and tomorrow, and then Wednesday through May 26. Miss it at your peril.