The Adaptors Movement Theatre, making a long-awaited Washington debut, brought the production it calls "Autobahn" to Dance Place last night, turning the intimate showplace into a loud, wacky, electronic rumpus room.
The piece, conceived, directed and choreographed by Adaptors founders Tony Brown and Kari Margolis, seemed as much a conflagration of inspired insanity as I remembered from a first encounter with it three years ago at Baltimore's Theatre Project. Accurately billed as "a potpourri of impressions from our recent past and our uncertain future," it hurls one ingenious cascade of imagery on top of another, in what strikes one more as an explosive collision of media than a mere mixture of same.
At the same time I'd have to say that last night's performance appeared more strained and straining than the one I recall from 1985. It was as if the performers were working too hard for effect, and pressing to eke out "significance." Consequently, some of the material seemed thinner and less resonant than the first time around, when the spontaneity seemed unforced.
There are any number of possible reasons to account for the difference. Though six of the 11 cast members (including Brown and Margolis) are the same, the others are new. Although, like their predecessors, they all displayed consummate skills as mimes and "movement actors," some of the roles that earlier seemed specific to individual performers proved less effective with the changes -- for instance, the final vignette featuring a "child" devouring breakfast cereal, and the sendup of Richard Nixon in the second scene, which was a lot more Nixon-like in the earlier staging.
There was also no live music this time. Then again, after touring the piece for nearly four years (it premiered in 1984 in Brooklyn), the troupe itself may be having some understandable trouble keeping it fresh.
Am I, then, eating my former laudatory words? By no means. For one thing, the entire feeling of deflation could well be the product of opening-night tensions. And for another, both the work and the performance remain extremely impressive. The sheer feat of orchestrating so intricate and high-spirited a me'lange of mime and mimicry, concerted movement, speech, song, video, props and satirical sketches into a unified lampoon of contemporary American obsessions and attitudes entitles the Adaptors to very high marks for creativity.
"Autobahn," in short, remains a whirlwind tour de force, even in a theatrical context enriched in recent years by a rash of boldly imaginative multimedia ventures. The piece lurches helter-skelter from topic to topic, but the first of its 12 contiguous scenes -- labeled "American Safari" and already in progress as the audience takes its seats -- defines the general locus to be American pop culture. Three TV monitors glare out at the audience and remain ever-present through the evening, as much a constant as they are in American lives. At one spot on the crowded stage, a couple grills franks on an outdoor barbecue; at another, three men in astronaut outfits wrestle with a huge coil of metal tubing. Elsewhere nearby, a woman tending flower pots seems about to strangle herself in a garden hose; a sunbather lolls on a chaise, and other characters busy themselves with pets and infants. The sound track mingles Bach, birds and bees, and racetrack bugles.
The last scene -- the one with the young boy almost maniacally gorging himself on cornflakes -- brings the thread back to mundane domesticity, serving at the same time as a quirky icon of American childhood and an amusing symbol of our ever-excessive consumption of junk. In between, broadly stylized, comically inventive scenes deal with a fixation on flight, space and nuclear destruction; with our passion for gadgetry and such technological substitutes for reality as stereo and video; with our sentimentalization of war; our devotion to nostalgia; and with women's imprisonment in the bromides of fan magazine romance.
Among the most memorable images are those of the quartet of women with ironing boards, turning themselves almost literally into living dolls; the spectacle of a man at first terrorized by a microphone, and then, conquering his fear, using it to deliver a diabolical tirade in a mock-language that sounds like a fusion of Japanese and Swedish; a woman pitching erotic woo to a hair dryer, as four of her friends bounce their rumps on the floor; a platoon of red-eyed toy robots whirring and clanking across the stage as a woman croons "Let's Bring Back WWI"; and a scene called "Executive Suite" paying homage to Kurt Jooss' ballet, "The Green Table," with corporate types tearing each other to bits over vested interests.
"Autobahn" will be repeated tonight, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon; in response to demand, an extra performance has been scheduled for 8 p.m. Sunday.