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The trouble with theories is that they are so easily confounded by experience, and I must qualify much of what I've said above admitting that most vivid theatrical experience of the last so long was none of the above but Crowbar, a performance piece staged by En Garde Arts at the Victory Theater on 42nd Street. En Garde Arts is the "site specific" theater company founded in 1985 by Anne Hamburger, who has a talent for turning unlikely nooks and crannies of the world at large-central Park, the Chelsea Hotel, the Brooklyn waterfront-into de facto theaters. Her latest and largest inspiration has been to take over a real theater on the brink of annihilation and to commission from playwright Mac Wellman and composer David Van Tieghem a kind of son et lumiere pageant celebrating the building's history, from its opening night premiere of Sag Harbor in 1900 (in which the actors eat real clam pies and gingerbread right on stage) down through the decades as it becomes a burlesque house, a movie theater and, until just yesterday, a porn palace.

Wellman and Van Tieghem have risen to the occasion with a theatrical event of genuine inspiration. Not a drama, perhaps, since there is next to no story line; rather, they have provided a simulated haunting with musical accompaniment, a spookhouse for sophisticates. As the audience sits onstage and in a bank of seats at the front of the orchestra, a cast of eight actors, backed up by a chorus of twenty, are deployed afl about the theater, on the stage, in the wings, in the boxes, aisles and balconies-even aloft in the dome. They represent a cross section of real-life New Yorkers who suffered mischance or killed themselves at the time the theater opened (their deaths were culled from contemporary newspapers). Included is one ghost, who had been killed by the crowbar of the title as it fell from the dome during the building's construction.

The style of this haunting varies from the high-polish realism of the apparition of David Belasco (many of whose works premiered here) to the deliciously ditzy monologues of an aggrieved, mad Polish housewife (done to a fare-thee-well by Elzbieta Czyzewska), with a midrange of specters whose identities keep slipping away from them to beautiful effect. Omar Shapli is splendid as a Victorian paterfamilias. Cordelia Richards and Mollie O'Mara are memorable maidenly wraiths. Not to forget Yusef Bulos as Belasco, Nora Dunfee as a woman who's been waiting ninety years to see the second act of Sag Harbor and Glen M. Santiago, a supervisory spirit who plays a saxophone while suspended at a great height in a body harness from the space above the win .

All this neglects Van Tieghem's contributions as a composer, which range from wispy to bombastic as the occasion requires. The occasion never quite requires song or dance as such; rather, Van Tieghem's task is to dramatize the varied and imposing spaces of the Victory Theater, which he does with a fertile aural imagination, at one point having the choragus lead his chorus all about the house as he uses its appurtenances-seats, pillars, brass rails-as instruments of percussion.

To suggest the overall effect of Crowbar I would have to hark back to the glory days of Judson Church, when Al Carmines was producing his best work there, especially the work he based on texts by Gertrude Stein. Wellman's text often uses repetition as Stein might have, and Richard Caliban's direction steers a similar exhilarating course between the cozily quotidian and the gracefully weird. As an evocation of ghostliness I can't recall seeing anything in live theater to equal it, and as an evocation of the ill fated Victory Theater it is genuinely poignant. One experiences a particular frisson in watching a play that is designed for this unique space and can never be transferred, meaningfully, elsewhere. Soon, probably, the theater-the entire street of theaters-will not exist. Theater in its nature is an evanescent art form, but it can scarcely get more evanescent than this.
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Title Annotation:Victory Theater, New York
Author:Disch, Thomas M.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Mar 19, 1990
Previous Article:The Film Society.
Next Article:Get thee hence!

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