The quest for identity, as old as drama itself, is embodied in two wildly divergent pieces -- "Is This Real?" and "Solo Voyages," which opened a three-week engagement last night at the New Playwrights' Theatre. The first is lean and hushed -- a breeze, blowing over bare bones. The second whips up a riot of images -- a tornado ripping through an art gallery. But they share this in common: Both are deeply personal explorations for a sense of self.
The search, unfortunately, is so personal that you will have to content yourself pretty much with the contrasting "tones." This is not an evening of hard shapes and clear answers. It's all questions, ambiguities, overlapping puzzlements.
Those theatergoers who have no tolerance for the avant-garde experiments of the 1960s and '70s are sure to find the plays frustratingly hermetic. On the other hand, they represent a kind of off-off-Broadway theater that is almost never performed in Washington. Brought here by the American National Theater, which has temporarily rented New Playwrights' facility, they are probably most charitably viewed as further evidence of ANT's determination to stir up the theatrical pot.
"Is This Real?," described as a collage for radio by Ronnie Gilbert and Mira Rafalowicz, attempts to plumb the mind of director Joseph Chaikin, who suffered a stroke in the spring of 1984 and has been courageously fighting ever since to regain the use of language. Chaikin himself, looking both childlike and ethereal in middle-age, is the chief performer, reciting bits of sentences and fragments of poetry that want desperately to give expression to the world beyond words into which he was suddenly plunged.
Like an embryonic "Wings," Arthur Kopit's drama about a stroke victim, "Is This Real?" is a report from within. "Between the lips and the voice, something goes dying," Chaikin says. Three outsiders try to help him articulate the vision that can't get out: Harvey Perr, who provides us with a welter of medical information, largely contradictory, about aphasia; Gilbert, who raises her lovely voice in bits of song; and Skip LaPlante, who adds the abstract musical accompaniment.
"I still don't know," Chaikin concludes at the end of the tremulous piece, "if I'm a hawk or a storm or a great song." Nor do we. "Is This Real?" is quick and fleeting. But it is pregnant with Chaikin's pain and gallantry and leaves one with an oddly authentic sense of mystery.
"Solo Voyages," three monologues from the plays of Adrienne Kennedy, does not. The plays -- "The Owl Answers," "A Rat's Mass" and "A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White" -- may be more coherent on their own terms. But these interwoven excerpts don't produce a shimmering new tapestry so much as a blanket of confusion. The single character is a young black woman, who is apparently trying to find her place in the modern world. The trip -- more of a nightmare, really -- takes her to the Tower of London, a Harlem subway station, the backwoods of Georgia.
She goes backward and forward in time, grappling with the likes of Anne Boleyn, Shakespeare, Chaucer, the Nazis, small-town ministers, white reprobates, a character called "Black Man" and an owl (Jawole Willa Jo Zollar). The owl dances about the periphery and has the wisdom not to ask the heroine "Who?"
If "Is This Real?" is understandably short on words, "Solo Voyages" is prolixity itself. Under Chaikin's direction, Robbie McCauley gives it a vigorous try. She switches accents and voices at every turn, varies the pace and changes her posture (and costume), all to the relentless beat of an African drum. But we end up choking on the verbiage. There is a big irony here. What makes "Is This Real?" moving are the words that will not come. What sinks "Solo Voyages" are all the words that do.
Is This Real? By Ronnie Gilbert and Mira Rafalowicz. Directed by Gilbert and Dianne Houston. Lighting, Rachel Budin. With Joseph Chaikin, Ronnie Gilbert, Harvey Perr, Skip LaPlante. Solo Voyages. Monologues from the plays of Adrienne Kennedy. Directed by Joseph Chaikin. With Robbie McCauley, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. At the New Playwrights' Theatre through Nov. 30.