IN DESCRIBING their delayed premiere season, the American National Theater has made much of its "search for new forms." So it's strange that there is nothing particularly new about ANT's first presentation, a New York import called "Solo Voyages." It's a brief evening of self-conscious, self-indulgent theater about theater, a piece out of another time -- perhaps the "beat" '50s or the "happening" '60s.
An adaptation of three monologues by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by avant-garde guru and Open Theater founder Joseph Chaikin, "Solo Voyages" is playing at "satellite stage" New Playwrights Theater. It would seem entirely natural if ANT/NPT served espresso and the audience snapped its fingers rather than applauded.
Kennedy's three interrelated monologues, centering around a black girl named Clara Passmore, are so willfully obscure as to be nearly impenetrable. Clara, who seems confused about her ancestry and shuttles breathlessly back and forth between book- learned fantasy and colloquial reality, rants in the first piece about English historical figures like Shakespeare, Chaucer and Anne Boleyn; raves about Christian totems and Nazis in the second; and in the third talks about writing a play aptly called "A Lesson in Dead Language" and assays erratic impersonations of movie stars like Bette Davis and Shelley Winters.
There are frequent flashes of wit in Kennedy's work, and her fragmented characters accumulate over time so some inkling of what's going on is possible. Actress Robbie McCauley works mightily, nimbly switching personas each time Beverly Emmons' lighting blinks. But too soon the mind is wandering to all corners of the theater, grateful for the distractions director Chaikin has provided.
The music, an exotically percussive African/Oriental hybrid, was composed and is performed by Skip La Plante, who coaxes from his odd instrument arsenal an array of sounds that includes foghorn drones, mosquito buzzes and upset stomach growls; and by Edwina Lee Tyler, who sits in a chair by a bleached, stunted tree, scowling darkly over her bongo drum.
There is also a "movement performer" -- the dauntingly-named Jawole Willa Jo Zollar -- who, clad in a tattered blue doily, twitches and writhes and glares spiderlike all over the bi-level stage. At times Zollar shadows McCauley, but for the most part, her seemingly improvised efforts seem unrelated and wasted.
Of more interest is the evening's prologue, a staged reading of "Is This Real?," an affecting 20-minute radio play about director Chaikin's debilitating stroke. This technical malfunction ironically left Chaikin, a pioneer of non-narrative theater, searching for words.
Drawing from poetry and his own musings, Chaikin speaks of the struggle to recover his stricken senses. Chaikin's frail, innocent presence is touching, and his performance is made more remarkable by the fact that he has effectively relearned language in less than two years. He is ably supported by Harvey Perr, who provides a dry scientific counterpoint about aphasia, and Ronnie Gilbert, who sings sweetly.
Both of the evening's works share a common idea -- their characters' search for self. Unfortunately, the audience is not invited to join the hunt.
SOLO VOYAGES and IS THIS REAL? -- At New Playwrights Theater through November 30.