When, in the midst of Martha Clarke's "The Garden of Earthly Delights," performers hurtle aloft toward the audience, zooming, writhing and flailing high above those seated in the orchestra, you experience an almost frightening sense of vertigo. It's as if the ground were suddenly cut from beneath your own body, and you feel yourself -- like the bobbing angels, demons and sinners of the cast -- to be giddily adrift in midair.
The flying sequences (the performers are supported by harnesses and guy wires) are among the most spectacular effects in the piece, but there are many others. Even those who may have seen Clarke's "Vienna: Lusthaus" at the Kennedy Center last fall, and may therefore be prepared to some degree for the brilliant theatrical chicanery of which she's capable, are apt to be unexpectedly dazzled by what awaits them here.
"Garden" -- which opened a four-performance run at the Warner Theatre last night -- preceded "Vienna: Lusthaus" in temporal origin, and though it operates within a kindred array of mixed means and media, from a purely physical standpoint it's considerably more flamboyant. Partly this is a reflection of the subject. Inspired by a celebrated triptych painted by Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch in the early years of the 16th century, depicting Paradise, Hell and the grossest of mortal indulgences, Clarke's "Garden" is a panorama of human voluptuousness, sin, folly and suffering.
More than most things one sees in a theater these days, and because it so completely transfers one to another world, "Garden" makes one reflect anew on the meaning of artistic creativity. What is it artists actually create? The materials they work with -- be they paint and canvas, or instruments and tones, or moving bodies -- are already in existence; they're not called into being by artists, only disposed and arranged in certain ways. It's the illusory semblance of a newly made world -- the result of these arrangements -- that seems to "replace" reality and deserve the name of creation.
Seeing "Garden" makes this especially palpable. It lasts only an hour, but one feels transported through centuries. The blackened globe of space in which the action transpires -- like the represented space of Bosch's painting -- is experienced not as the actual enclosure of the theater, but as a realm of infinite magnitude and mystery. Similarly, the ecstasies and agonies of the cast are simulations, but one feels them as if they were visited upon one's own flesh. And the phantasmagorical atmosphere that envelops the work is a fiction magically conjured by all the elements of the piece -- movement, music, lighting, costumes, stagecraft -- in concert.
Structurally the work proceeds through four scenes -- "Eden," "The Garden," "The Seven Sins" and "Hell" -- but they are contiguous. The current of movement, moreover, is an uninterrupted continuum -- a reminder that Clarke, who conceived and directed the piece, is fundamentally a choreographer, for all her multimedia elaborations. At every point, however, the performance declares its collaborative nature. Richard Peaslee's ingenious score, itself collaboratively invented with the original instrumentalists and drawing upon a multitude of period instruments and folk traditions, supports and colors the dance movement. The onstage musicians -- Matthias Naegele, Bill Ruyle and Steven Silverstein -- double as performers, and even the instruments get into the action. Paul Gallo's strikingly dramatic lighting creates mood, focus and accent. Jane Greenwood's costumes -- skin-colored unitards plus medieval-style garments -- echo Bosch and highlight anatomy in aptly piquant fashion. And Peter Foy's flying apparatus adds a startling new dimension. The choreography itself grew out of improvisatory sessions led by Clarke with the original dancers, three of whom -- Felix Blaska, Marie Fourcaut and Paola Styron -- are in the Warner cast. The other superb performers are Rob Besserer, Francine Landes, William Whitener and Lila York.
It is Clarke's sensibility, wit and imagination, though, that rule the roost and give the piece its astonishing unity of line and tone. The salient imagery is too profuse to recount in detail, but among the memorable passages are the snake initiating Adam and Eve into the realm of lust and shame with a lascivious flickering of the tongue; a man illustrating the vice of gluttony by ravenously ingesting mouthfuls of potatoes; and the savage coda in "Hell" wherein the cellist stabs a predatory woman in the chest with the intrument's point.
For all the awe and admiration "Garden" inspires, it's not very involving emotionally; it's a transcendent feat of theatrical prestidigitation but it doesn't probe particularly deeply into the realm of feeling. All the same, it makes much of conventional theater and dance pale by comparison.
Originally produced in 1984 by Lyn Austin and the Music-Theatre Group in New York, and generously supported in its developmental phase by Pierre Cardin, "Garden" has been presented in a number of cities in this country as well as in Spain and Israel. The Warner staging, under the auspices of the Washington Performing Arts Society and District Curators Inc., along with MTG, will be the last opportunity to see the work for a long while, since Clarke is moving on to a new opus and an international tour of "Vienna: Lusthaus."
Clarke, her collaborators and the cast have invited the public to discuss "Garden" with them in a free session Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Franz Bader Gallery (1701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW).