IT'S THE surreal thing: "Dreamland Burns" by Squat Theater, an exiled Hungarian avant-garde troupe, provides a fascinating panoply of unearthly visions, combining film, live theater and technical and design wizardry. It's difficult to know what to make of this performance at the Kennedy Center's Free Theater -- the material is subject to highly personal interpretations or outright dismissal -- but viewers are left slightly disoriented and exhilarated, with the kind of eerie after-images left by a dream.
Since the Squat troupe left Hungary in the early '70s, its members have been performing in downtown New York storefronts, and they display a command of film and the traditional stage as well. "Dreamland Burns" begins with a dryly comic 45-minute black-and-white film called "Let Me Love You," a distinctly European vision of lonely and fragmented American (specifically New York) life: Like an avant-garde "That Girl," a young woman moves into her first apartment in Manhattan and is abruptly abandoned by her lover on what would be her night of triumph. She wanders the city, encountering strange denizens of bars and the street, including a cab driver who insists on reading her palm with unsettling accuracy. She comes home, and smoking, weeping and alone, falls asleep.
The movie screen slowly ascends, revealing a deeply-shadowed set bisected by a strip of flame, and her dreaming subconscious is enacted, in a neat paradox, by live actors and realistic mannequins animated by film-projected faces. The woman encounters her lover and friends in a stream of vivid and jarring surrealistic images, all underscored by fragments of Wagner's "Gotterdamerung": A chandelier crashes to the floor and explodes, an apartmentful of furniture falls from the sky while a child wanders about, the Virgin Mary makes an appearance over a twinkling New York skyline and the debris-strewn stage.
Squat performers include Eszter Balint, who appeared in the recent cult film "Stranger Than Paradise," and displays here the same worldly deadpan charm. August Darnell, leader of the rock group Kid Creole and the Coconuts, plays her restless lover on film and reappears as an animated dummy. Peter Berg combines sweetness and menace as the palm-reading cab driver who makes what could be a comment on the show: "I don't know if it's true or not -- it just happened."
Tickets for "Dreamland Burns" have already been distributed, but some seats will be available to the ticketless for each performance on a first-come basis. Arrive at least 30 minutes before curtain. -- Joe Brown.
DREAMLAND BURNS -- By Squat Theater at the Free Theater at the Kennedy Center through July 6.