When "Autobahn" makes its bow at Dance Place this week, it will mark the Washington premiere of one of the zaniest, most brilliantly innovative and incisively probing stage pieces of recent times. It will also be the occasion for the area debut of Tony Brown and Kari Margolis, the author-directors of "Autobahn," and the founders of the Adaptors Movement Theatre, the superbly skilled, Brooklyn-based troupe that performs the opus.
The performances of "Autobahn" -- Thursday through Sunday -- will also be riding the crest of what appears to be a rapidly mounting wave of multimedia presentations hereabouts.
In nearby past seasons in Washington, we've been treated to a number of outstanding multimedia events -- such productions as Laurie Anderson's "United States," Robert Wilson's "The Knee Plays" (from his megawork, "The CIVIL warS"), Meredith Monk's "Quarry," and Martha Clarke's "Vienna: Lusthaus," as well as works in a similar vein by such Washington artists as Liz Lerman and Wendy Woodson. What links these quite diverse creations is the way they straddle the borderlines between drama, dance, mime, music and performance art.
This year, we're having a sudden crunch of such attractions within little more than a month -- Clarke's "The Garden of Earthly Delights," which played four performances at the Warner Theatre the week before last; Ping Chong and the Fiji Company's "The Angels of Swedenborg," which District Curators is bringing to the Marvin Theatre next month; and presently "Autobahn." There must be something in the air, and perhaps what it is is a coming of age for a new, "between-the-cracks" art form that hitherto has disported itself mostly on the outer edges of the theatrical mainstream.
"Autobahn," a "marriage of myth and junk," as one observer called it, is a crazy quilt of imagery surveying the fads and madnesses of our era. The range of subject matter runs from astronauts and the arms race to domestic suburbia, and in one deliciously daffy scene five women make erotic overtures to their hair dryers. Involving a cast of 11 including Margolis and Brown and lasting 80 minutes, the piece uses body movement, gesture, dialogue, music, video, still photography, costumes and comically ingenious props.
One of the things that make the Adaptors stand apart from other multimedia purveyors is that their base is that branch of contemporary mime sometimes referred to as "corporeal mime" -- hence, also, the term "movement theater." In fact, Brown and Margolis first met as pilgrims to the Paris studio of corporeal mime guru Etienne Decroux, perhaps best known as the teacher of Jean-Louis Barrault. They first began to work together during their years in France in the mid-'70s, earning a living by performing in the streets of Paris and St. Tropez as traditional, white-faced mimes.
"We had a five-minute act we'd repeat 25 times a day," Margolis recalls. "We made more money then than ever since."
But they were also looking for something beyond the horizons of the mime language they were mastering. "It was very frustrating," says Margolis. "We felt there had to be something more than this. We were in love with the art, but were confused and disillusioned at the same time, and couldn't figure out how to take it further."
They spent four years touring internationally with Omnibus, a Montreal-based troupe led by Decroux disciple Jean Asselin, but after nearly seven years of living mostly abroad the two felt a strong need to return home, to America. Brown, born in Broken Arrow, Okla., had grown up in Los Angeles, pursuing such interests as rock music and mime. Margolis, a Brooklyn native, also moved to California, where she felt torn between the worlds of dance and theater.
Decroux had brought them together and given them both the technical foundation they craved, but they had other artistic fish to fry. "We knew we wanted to write about and create material relating to American culture -- it's what we knew and understood and felt we had something to say about. So we settled in New York in 1982 and opened a school, to train the kind of 'movement actors' we knew we'd be wanting to work with."
It wasn't until they got to New York that they realized how viable a team they really were, Margolis notes. "We saw that our ideas bounced off each other very productively. And our inclinations complemented each other. My great ability was dealing with people, running a rehearsal, and I'm very fast -- they don't call me 'motor mouth' for nothing. Tony is slower, more private, but also a technological genius."
It was technology they had in mind when they chose the name Adaptors for their troupe. "It's adaptors," Margolis explains, "that patch everything together in the world of technology and communication. We also liked the slightly punk feeling of the term."
After a year of operating the school, they were itchy to create some new material, to "test the waters," as Margolis puts it. They told their advanced students, "Hey kids, we're going to write a show, want to be in it?" and that's how the work on "Autobahn" got started. In 1983 they created a video piece, "Aeroglyphics," in collaboration with a Canadian friend; it made very droll use of toy airplanes, among other things, and it became the point of departure for "Autobahn."
"We were fascinated with the concept of toys, and especially war toys," Margolis says. "We had this collection of robots and ray guns. We were both junk collectors and most of the stuff found its way into our work. One day we watched a beauty salon being demolished, and for a case of beer they sold us this hair dryer. Another time we were on our way to visit my parents in Jersey and passed a yard sale, where we found an old radio broadcast microphone. At the start of 'Autobahn,' we thought of making a duo, with me directing Tony with the mike, and he directing me with the dryer. But we decided we wanted a larger production that would emphasize ensemble performance, and that's when we enlisted our students."
They spent some sleepless nights trying to come up with a title for the piece, and some people found it odd that they'd use a German term for a piece so filled with American imagery. "But we thought, 'So what?' " says Margolis. "We needed a word that suggested fast motion proliferating, the idea of nonstop moving, having to go as fast as the person in front of you, the idea of no exit, no turning around and no speed limits."
"Autobahn" was premiered in the spring of 1984 at BACA Downtown (Brooklyn Arts and Culture Association), where the Adaptors troupe has been in continuing residence. Since then, the piece has played to burgeoning acclaim in Mexico, major Canadian cities, London, up and down the U.S. East Coast, as close to Washington as Baltimore and Ellicott City, Md., and off-Broadway in New York City.
The Adaptors' next major work, "DecoDance," began at BACA in 1986 and so far has only been seen there, but it sounds like a humdinger in Margolis' description: "Tony and I play a pair of vampires on a centuries-long endless date. The piece deals with the way Hollywood rules our lives -- our notions of romance, our esthetics, the way we look. The vampires are like bloodsuckers who sponge up all of the Hollywood mystique, trying to find love and not being able to. It ends with a ballroom number in which everyone in the cast is dancing with mannequin parts -- an arm, a leg, whatever. Each one carries a little cassette recorder that whispers sweet nothings.
There's a wedding scene in which the bride and groom are whizzed around the stage on dollies, like cake figurines. There's also an absurd, cruel game show in a cabaret called Cafe Desire."
Last year the troupe presented two new works -- "Suite Sixteen," commissioned by the Brooklyn Museum, and "The Bed: Experiment One," which premiered at BACA and has since been seen in Atlanta and at Baltimore's Theatre Project. "The Bed" is at once more abstract and more universal than "Autobahn," amounting to nothing less than a history of civilization from the point of view of the bed. A huge bed is the setting; the actors are alternately or simultaneously on it, under it, over and around it, enacting stylized versions of everything from birth to recreation to procreation to death. The Adaptors are performing it tonight, at the Kinetics Dance Theatre in Ellicott City. Later this year it will be staged at Philadelphia's International Mime Festival.
Though the Adaptors have yet to achieve the kind of broad public recognition toward which they seem decisively headed, awareness of their excellence has been spreading apace. Last fall the group received a "Bessie" -- a New York Dance and Performance Award -- for "The Bed," Margolis and Brown for their choreography and direction, and the company for the perfection of its ensemble.
The "Autobahn" performances at Dance Place are under the joint auspices of D.C. Wheel Productions and the Washington Performing Arts Society (the first such collaborative effort between the two groups), and is also a part of the National Performance Network, a national series to promote the dissemination of new and nontraditional works in the performing arts, administered by New York's Dance Theatre Workshop. The evening performances, Thursday through Saturday, begin at 8:30; next Sunday's performance is at 4.