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‘The Legacy of Reza Abdoh’ Revisits the Noted Avant-Gardist’s Career

This coming Monday, CUNY’s Martin E. Segal Theatre Center takes a look back at the work of avant-garde theater maker Reza Abdoh, who died at the age of 32 in 1995. His visceral, elaborate extravaganzas—staged by his company Dar a Luz—were some of the most ambitious and memorable work produced in 1990s New York. The retro’s Part 1 begins at 10 a.m. with video screenings of Abdoh’s Bogeyman (1991), Law of Remains (1992), Tight Right White (1993), plus selections from early video work. At 4:30 p.m., former Abdoh collaborators Tony Torn, Peter Jacobs, and Tom Pearl read sections of Quotations From a Ruined City (1994). At 6:30 p.m., there’ll be two panels, one about Dar a Luz’s collaborative process, featuring Anita Durst, Juliana Francis-Kelly, Tom Pearl, and Tal Yarden, among others; Elinor Fuchs and James Leverett host. The second panel, chaired by Norman Frisch, will discuss Abdoh’s aesthetics, and feature Richard Foreman, Michael Counts, Caden Manson, Jim Findlay, and Marc Arthur.

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, The CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue. The event is free.

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IRAN SO FAR

Ahmadinejad would likely not approve. With its Iranian Theater Festival, the Brick Theater unfurls a Persian carpet of conversation and performance works, many of them highly experimental, which explore Iranian history and identity. As theater has existed in Iran since 1000 b.c., the creators will have quite a lot to draw upon. The festival includes plays in English and Persian on subjects such as “murders, suicides, and rabbits”; “how hard it is to keep a chador on”; Hitler’s doppelgänger; and the Iran/Iraq War as performed by marionettes. Additional events include an Iranian New Year’s party, live Skype chats with Iranian citizens, and a panel on controversial visionary director Reza Abdoh staffed with several of his collaborators, including Juliana Francis-Kelly and Tony Torn.

March 3-26, 2011

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Avant Midtown

That old boho energy now quivers unexpectedly along 42nd Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, just a swift kick away from Disney and the other neon nabobs. The location of this art effusion is one of post-gentrification’s little ironies. Forget the cheap neighborhoods; there aren’t any left. (Not Williamsburg, not DUMBO, etc.) So set the controls for the heart of the beast. Downtown just found a midtown sublet.

Four storefronts on the block between Sixth and Seventh have become unique theaters under the auspices of Chashama, an organization founded in 1995 by principal players in Reza Abdoh’s experimental theater company, Dar a Luz. Chashama’s declared intention is to bring experimental art to commercial areas and unsuspecting audiences. That it’s done. But perhaps the most invaluable gift Chashama has to offer in an age without wiggle room is space. In addition to the four theaters on 42nd Street, Chashama has parceled out studios for artists in a 57th Street building—40,000 square feet, and it’s all free.

This month Chashama moves to an unprecedented level of activity with their Oasis Festival, offering free film, dance, and theater events every day through the beginning of June. They’d planned it as a kind of swan song to 42nd Street, thinking they had to move out in June. Now construction on the new office building has been delayed, and they have till the end of the year.

So the scene is temporary—but then, from Montmartre to the East Village, weren’t they all? The property belongs to the Durst Organization, the developers who erected the Condé Nast building and own other chunks of midtown, and they have big plans for the space. But for now they’ve turned it over to Anita Durst, a founding member of Dar a Luz and Chashama’s artistic director.

Durst says Chashama began out of a feeling that Dar a Luz had to somehow keep Abdoh’s energy going after he died of AIDS in 1995. “That’s what it’s about for me,” she says. “Creating the kind of energy that Reza gave me. Because he took me out of a box. He opened me up to things I never would have imagined. So that’s what I’m trying to do with Chashama. Give that healing, that creativity, that space.” Chashama means “spring outlet” or “of my eye” (depending on pronunciation) in Farsi, Abdoh’s native language.

Indeed, Chashama offers a playful do-anything ambience long missing Downtown. The storefront housing the Oasis Festival is the only one with a regular proscenium stage. The other three have interiors designed by the people performing in them, right down to one fur-lined bathroom.

In a former haberdashery slightly wider (perhaps) than a jumbo jet, the National Theater of the United States of America built itself a long skinny stage to accommodate its current madcap effort, Placebo Sunrise, set in the corridor of a surreal cruise ship. NTUSA’s antic sensibility extends to the little bandbox built for spectators. From the “Imperial Box” ($25) to the “Makeout Balcony” ($7), 40 people pack the house.

The Thing opened last week a couple of doors west. Performance artist Julie Atlas Muz installed a six-inch pond as her stage, lugged in 34 tree stumps for the audience to sit on, and carpeted this little forest glade with $600 worth of pennies. Spectators sit mere inches from the water, wearing ponchos.

Meanwhile, Durst is directing The World of the P Cult, with a cast drawn from nightclubs (go-go dancers) and the Living Theater. Durst asked metalsmith Veronica Evanega to design the set—and to make whatever she wanted. The result is a metal catwalk about seven feet high hugging the walls of a former deli, with a small Plexiglas stage and what appears to be a slice of roller-coaster track. Spectators will stand.

Durst had an unconventional introduction to the arts. Dropping out of school in the 10th grade, severely dyslexic, she was enrolled in a program she describes as “10-minute classes, not very educational. Then you worked the rest of the day.” But when someone came in to do theater with them, she was hooked. She moved from Westchester into Manhattan to study acting and lived with her grandfather, the realtor Seymour Durst, in the middle of his amazing Old York Library collection of 13,000 books, 20,000 postcards, and piles of ephemera related to New York City history. He even had books in the refrigerator.

“Along with the food?”

“Instead of the food.”

(Seymour Durst also put up the National Debt Clock on Sixth Avenue, blinking its horrible numbers for years, bumming everyone out. An art project, really.)

Anita Durst became an assistant to Annie Hamburger of En Garde Arts, which put theater productions into nontraditional settings during the ’90s. A pier. A warehouse. Even once—for Mac Wellman’s Crowbar—in an actual 42nd Street theater, though the audience sat on the stage. That was in 1990, when Douglas Durst, Anita’s father, owned the theater.

“Then I met Reza,” says Anita. “I got him all the spaces he had in New York. Even when they weren’t from my family. I had, you know, the connections.” Indeed, Douglas Durst, who sits on the board of a couple Off-Broadway theater companies, was not hard to persuade. “He gave me 57th Street,” says Anita. “I didn’t ask him.”

Up at the 57th Street site, Durst shows me through a couple of cavernous floors that used to house Artkraft Straus, a company that made signs for Broadway shows. Much of the space is open, and artists have marked off their turf with plastic, dropcloths, and curtains. A few even built walls with locking doors. Durst can’t remember the exact number now using the space, probably 50 or 60. That doesn’t include the occasional desperate dancer who comes to rehearse despite the bad floors.

Durst has a dream of turning Chashama into a kind of Real Estate for the Arts program modeled on Materials for the Arts and Lawyers for the Arts. The idea is that developers would donate temporarily empty space, maybe in exchange for a tax deduction, and Chashama would turn it over to artists. “I’m going to try to do it without my family’s assistance,” says Durst, who’s been supporting Chashama in part with family money. “If this is going to happen, I want it to happen on its own. Or with other people’s support.”

“Like 1 Times Square,” she says, as we get out of a cab across the street from it, center of the universe when the New Year’s Eve ball drops, currently empty and forlorn. “That’s such a vital spot for New York. Even if we just put some window performances in there . . . ”

I haven’t even touched on the window installations or the outreach program for youth at risk. Chashama has to be the most ambitious new arts group to come along in a decade, a blast of fresh air against the fetid ’90s. But last week, a piece of the roof collapsed at the 57th Street site, and Anita Durst was hoping to bunk the second-floor artists in with the first floor. It’s a precarious business. I mean art, not real estate.

For information, visit www.chashama.org.

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The Birds Are on Fire

“The sky can still fall on our heads,” Artaud wrote in 1938, “and it is the function of theatre to teach us that above all else.” The sky fell on our heads here in New York on September 11. Now it’s falling elsewhere, and will likely continue to do so.

I’m not one of those who believe that if we change our way of life, “the terrorists will have won.” When the sky falls on you, change is inevitable. It is even necessary and desirable. A new kind of imagination was awakened on September 11, an experience of reality that no Hollywood Armageddon had prepared us for. Nor, for that matter, had any theater prepared us for it—neither Artaud’s unrealized Theater of Cruelty, nor any other.

The images before us that day do place it in the tradition of Artaud. The New York Times quoted a child who saw burning bodies jumping from the buildings. “Look, teacher!” she screamed. “The birds are on fire!” Her vision, poetic and terrifying, was matched soon after, for all of us, by that smoldering mountain of debris downtown. In it we see, writ large, the late Reza Abdoh’s meditations on ruined cities, or, writ small, the debris at the foot of Walter Benjamin’s famous angel of history, the accumulated products of the storm of progress.

In describing the events, the genre on everyone’s lips has been tragedy, even though it seems to be playing, at many news organizations, as melodrama: a stark conflict between good and evil, complete with bearded villain and plainspoken hero. But if tragedy it is, which of the various interpretations of catharsis—purgation, purification, clarification—are to be had, and where? The major news media seem to favor purgation, whipping us into a fury of emotional response. More moderate media go “Looking for Answers” (as a recent PBS program was called), thereby offering catharsis as clarification. Finally, our best public fabulators—the writers of The West Wing, for example—strive for purification, allowing us to eat our emotional cake and have our thoughtfulness too.

The scale and ubiquity of media response to the events seem to leave little space for the arts, especially for a tiny minority discourse like theater. But theater, like Hamlet’s “old mole,” has the virtue of burrowing underground, being hic et ubique, here and everywhere, never knowing where its message will flare forth and illuminate a subject. Moreover, surely these “extraordinary times” invite us to give up timidity and dream wildly about changes that might illuminate those rubble heaps downtown and in Kabul.

I dream of a theater that is genuinely committed to remembering both rubble heaps, and many, many more. Someone remarked recently that “terrorism is the downside of globalization.” I dream of a theater that asks what (on earth!) the upside of globalization is. Which means that I dream of a theater based on the principle of reciprocity, of making sure that we understand as much about those parts of the world as they are expected to understand—even accept—about us. A South Asian friend of mine was once asked by a hostile colleague: “How come there are so many of you Indians in American academia nowadays?” My friend replied: “When you tell me what Mickey Mouse is doing in my village in Sri Lanka, I’ll tell you what I’m doing here.”

The theater could do much more than it has to interrupt the mushrooming logic of globalization. It might dedicate its remarkably flexible space—whether actual or virtual, indoor or outdoor, formal or otherwise—to putting us in touch with the big questions of living in a big world. Not just questions of what Mickey Mouse is doing in a Sri Lankan village, but where and how we’ve all crossed paths before and will again—the true story of globalization, which is more complex, ironic, heartbreaking, maddening, and hopeful than any call to war ever recognizes.

The theater I dream of would invite our playwrights to look beyond the American horizon. It would encourage them to bring their insights and compassion (or, in recent Pulitzer terms, their wit and proofs and lessons) to the intersections between this culture and others, whether forced, or fortuitous, or fearsome. It would be a theater that creates American versions of the kind of complex geopolitical theater—I’m thinking of plays like Churchill’s Mad Forest and Edgar’s Pentecost—that explores multiculturalism as a force in the world rather than merely a colorful strategy for narcissistic identity politics. This would then also be, automatically, an ecological theater, contesting our leaders’ denials of the link between our lives and the deaths of species and ecosystems. Such a vision might even transform the tiresome ironies of avant-garde theater—the theater of images and effects—into bracing dialectics, connecting aesthetics and pragmatics, sights and sites. Playwrights like Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks, Mac Wellman, and Naomi Iizuka, among many others, have amply shown in their past work the imaginative breadth required to move in this direction.

The theater I dream of would create a space outside the melodrama of good and evil. It would be a Theater of Cruelty where the painfully complicated realities of life—”cruel to myself,” as Artaud put it—can be inhabited. It would be a searching theater rather than a cathartic one, a wounding theater rather than a healing one, a theater willing to question all those towering twin monoliths—East and West, artist and critic, terrorism and war, us and them—that dwarf our humanity.

I think I glimpsed an image of this theater in Union Square the other day, when a belly dancer, unfurling a costume of glorious golden wings, danced to an Arabic version of “Imagine.” Watching her, I heard a hopeful note alter that terrible cry—”the birds are on fire”—that had filled my ears since September 11.

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Is This Desire?

Richard Foreman has certainly never tried to be “timely.” It’s sheer happy coincidence that his new piece, Paradise Hotel, plays like a gloss on the sexual hysteria currently consuming the nation’s politics. The acclaimed playwright- director has never addressed anything so quotidian in his 30 years in the theater, choosing instead, as he once wrote, “to spotlight the most elusive aspects of the experience of being human.”

Yet as his new piece begins, the audience learns that it is not watching Paradise Hotel after all, but “a much more disturbing, and possibly illegal play entitled— Hotel Fuck!” While the announcer apologizes abjectly for the abject work ahead, he also advises us to direct our “understandable distress” toward the threat that another less provocative play, Hotel Beautiful Roses, could take over the stage at any moment. So the conflict is established— a culture war between the naughty and the nice, the horny and the corny, the porn palace and a Lion King.

Of course, in a Foreman play, life among the contradictions is never so simple as Hustler versus Hallmark. For him, Paradise Hotel began with the thought, “How can I make something deliriously obsessive?” And could he stage it outside the cramped confines of his usual theater, the Ontological at St. Mark’s Church?

His associate producer, Sophie Haviland, suggested that Foreman work with Reza Abdoh’s old company, Dar A Luz, in hopes of finding a bigger theater. Abdoh’s perverse, spectacular, and revolting work demanded fearless performers; the troupe has been disbanded since Abdoh’s death several years ago. “Through my whole life I’ve had the feeling that— oh, if only I could really break through and do something crazy,” says Foreman, 61, who’s won nine Obies, a MacArthur “genius” grant, and a long list of other awards for his groundbreaking work. “Now a lot of people think what I do is relatively crazy, but I have the feeling that I’m constrained by my good taste, by my intelligence. I’ve never been able to really free myself. That was one of the reasons I thought, ‘Hey, I can use 15 of Reza’s actors. Maybe they’ll force me
into something crazier.’ ”

As usual, Foreman pulled a play’s worth of pages from the notebooks in which he writes raw dialogue every day. (No plots. No characters. Just lines.) He described his initial selection as “sort of a mystical play called Hotel Radio,” but once he knew he’d be working with Dar A Luz, “it struck me that it could be Hotel Fuck.” In the end, however, he made what is quite recognizably a Foreman play, he never found a larger theater, and only three Dar A Luz actors remain.

Foreman says that Hotel Fuck is the play’s real name, or will be by the time it tours Europe. “The reason we’re calling it Paradise Hotel here is for funding.” His managers convinced him that he couldn’t go to foundations and request money for anything by the name of Hotel Fuck. “Foreman sells out again,” he jokes.

But there’s also the reality that this “possibly illegal play” could become just that under the Giuliani regime. “Lord knows,” he says wearily, “everything that one could say about that at this point is such a cliché. That’s been part of my ambivalence about living in America. It’s why I almost went and lived in France. Not that I’m not essentially a very puritanical, uptight, bourgeois person myself. But the adolescent puritan streak that is so strong in America has certainly made me feel suffocated.”

The set has a wacky bordelloish look, with brocaded tasseled drapes across the walls, a red Greek column, a gorilla hanging upside down from the ceiling, striped poles, gold baby dolls, and paintings that look a bit surreal, a little Bosch. No doubt it’s meant to be a hotel of some kind— the kind that will fasten the drapes in place with little skulls. The characters are dressed for the 1920s or thereabouts. Their quest is to get to the right hotel (Fuck) or stay in the right play (ditto), but location is a state of mind. They’re creating their own reality. (“How did we get here without riding the bus?”) They are a frustrated lot. They don’t seem to know where they are, but they’re certain they could be someplace better.

They use the word fuck constantly. It seems to appear in every line. It doesn’t, but for those counting their F-words, Paradise Hotel is the most “obscene” play Foreman has ever written.

Let’s parse that word. Fuck is either good or bad, liberating or reductive, sexy or harsh. It’s the language of private moments and macho rites. It’s a word people use when they have an emotion they can’t articulate, and in that way it addresses an old Foreman concern: the limits of language. “It’s strictly in line with that tradition of what I consider productive frustration that is one of the bedrock sources, I think, of my work,” says the director. Paradise Hotel is not erotic, but filled with a dark comic rage, and fuck is a tool of aggression.

Then there’s “say it with flowers.” As the play threatens periodically to become the dreaded Hotel Beautiful Roses, actors appear wearing flowerpots on their heads or wrapped in wreaths. The flowers are either ominous or silly, never romantic. Fuck is preferred to Beautiful Roses no doubt for the promise of sex. But. No one’s getting any. Sometimes, perhaps, the vulgar isn’t that far from the insipid.

Across the front of the stage, Foreman has strung his trademark string and Plexiglas. He always vows he’s going to leave it out this time, then he always adds it in the end, mostly to create aesthetic distance and density. He thinks he needs it.

For years now, Foreman has set his pieces in some vague undefinable past. “Maybe the period around when I was born,” he speculates. “In ’37. Maybe there’s some psychological thing going on there. But I often look at old photographs from turn of the century through the ’30s. There’s an atmosphere that seems sort of hothouse sexually repressed, so you have very erotic scary surrealist— it’s what starts my juices flowing. Often I start thinking I will escape that this time, and I will prepare something that seems to be going in a different direction. But then, in rehearsal, it’s not me. So I revert back to what reverberates with me.”

For Foreman, the paradise that is not a hotel occurred before he could live in it, “anywhere from 1880 to the beginning of the war in Paris. That’s just heaven to me. It’s provided major inspiration for most of my plays.” Spread across the coffee table in Foreman’s Soho loft are several books about Baudelaire. He’s preparing for next year’s play, imagining some sort of Baudelairean street. It may be his first play in an outdoor setting, but, he says, “no guarantees. By the time it’s finished, I may not be able to do it.”

Years ago he told an interviewer, “I want to make art that gives me the environment I would rather be living in.” And that is still true, he says. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve profoundly felt that something’s wrong with the world. Something’s wrong with me. Something’s wrong with everything. And all of my plays are paradise. People are surprised because there are very aggressive energies in the plays, and there are very negative things in the plays. But I think that they are redeemed. And that’s my job. Redeemed by a kind of energy, a kind of light, a kind of organizational rhythm that to me is paradise.”

Richard Foreman has posted 15 years’ worth of his notebooks at www.ontological.com for others to use, royalty free, as raw material for plays.