"The Bed: Experiment 1" is a hilariously surreal voyage through mental space and time upon the flying mattress of imagination. Conceived and written by Kari Margolis and Tony Brown, artistic directors of New York's Adaptors Movement Theatre, the piece is enjoying an extended run at the Baltimore Theatre Project, where it opened Oct. 28 and closes next Sunday.
The work earned Margolis, Brown and the Adaptors a "Bessie" -- a New York Dance and Performance Award -- this September. The citation hailed it as "a stunning redefinition of the possibilities of movement theater and ensemble performance."
It is precisely that and more. The Adaptors had already shown us, in their multimedia "Autobahn" a couple of seasons back, an exceptional kind of originality in mixing up and fusing the realms of mime, theater, dance and performance art. "The Bed" continues exploring these media in novel ways. On the one hand, it does so within a more restricted palette of materials, relying on fewer and less complicated props and effects than "Autobahn." On the other hand, where "Autobahn" seemed specifically to diagnose contemporary craziness, "The Bed" appears more universal in scope, making observations on the human condition independent of era or locale.
"The Bed" begins with the sounds of an infant's cry, a howling wind, scraps of talk about astrophysics and a babble of voices. The rising light reveals an enormous frame bed, and upon it, a sheet makes a churning landscape of mountain peaks, canyons and ravines. In the very first sequence of images and sounds, "The Bed" and its eponymous prop summon an array of associations, memories and ideas as wide as the cosmos, stretching from the Big Bang to procreation on a human scale.
Eight white-faced performers -- Everypersons, both male and female -- emerge from under the sheet to carry us through a panorama of life abed. Movement is the primary means of expression, but it's not so much dance movement, sculpted into formal patterns, as movement as a kind of silent, stylized drama, abstracting relationships, gestures and actions into archetypal shapes. The Adaptors force us to rethink our definitions of dance, of drama, of mime -- it's one of the most interesting aspects of their work.
As the piece proceeds, the focus shifts from mating rituals to the antics of lovemaking, from the battle of the sexes to baby worship, and from dreams of conquest to nightmares of disembowelment. The bed turns from the cradle of civilization into a hospital cot, from a sultry desert to a tundra of monsters. As the scenes evolve -- the performance is a 60-minute continuum -- the tone mysteriously oscillates between extremes of farcicality or pathos. How the performers effect these wondrous transformations is one of the Adaptors' most singular professional secrets.
The skill, refinement and vibrancy of the cast can scarcely be praised enough, nor can the ingenuity and perfectionism of Margolis, as director, and she and Brown as the creators of "The Bed." Also to be commended are lighting designer Peter Anderson and Kyle Chepulis, who designed the cartoonish, all-purpose bed.
The Adaptors have done it again -- given a shot in the arm, that is, to those who believe the theater ought to be a place where the eye and the mind are confronted with ever-expanding horizons of vision.