Sound and Vision

15 Head, a theatre lab

In love and art, the shock of newness is always seductive. Hell, even new shoes are seductive. Yes, in love, art, and shoes, novelty counts for a lot of easy thrills and wasted money. The only real test of quality is that fat old judge, Time.

So it is with 15 Head, a theater "lab" that radiates the allure of unfinished youth. It's easy to have an artistic crush on this company and impossible to know whether it will last. The troupe has only produced four plays (Lulu, She Must Be Dreaming, The Lady from the Sea, and, currently, meFausto), and though their first show opened back in 1996, every 15 Head play still feels something like a debut. That's partly because the company has followed a different creative process each time out, and every show has evolved according to its own idiosyncratic demands. The noirish cabaret vibe of Lulu (think Berlin, 1925) was distinct from the Freudian Victorianism of The Lady from the Sea, for example. And while the company's elegant aestheticism has been clear from the get-go, it still feels fresh, in part because this sensibility is rare in this town.

At many theaters, an actor/director leads the production process and contracts a designer to build an unobtrusive, functional set. At a few theaters (the Jungle and Theatre de la Jeune Lune, for example), directors and other behind-the-scenes producers wear a variety of hats: director/set designer; writer/prop master; actor/sound designer, etc. If these people are talented, the external trappings of the show can become a sort of sensual poem, whispering secrets the script refuses to reveal, undergirding the play's themes, and continually nudging us to keep our so-called right brain awake.

This kind of theatrical versatility is also the strength of 15 Head, which was founded by two designers, Greg Smucker and Joe Stanley, and one director, Julia Fischer. Their training informs meFausto, a company-created work based on the Faust legend. Says director Smucker, "What I started with was that sense of what the movement and the music and the style would be before I even knew what the text or the story was going to be."

Six months before rehearsals for meFausto, a "script development team," including a therapist, a physician, and a pianist, started meeting to read various versions of the story and brainstorm its staging. After deciding that they would create their own script, an update of the legend, the group began a 10-week rehearsal process, starting with one scenario and allowing playwright Melissa James Gibson to write material as the play took life. This kind of collaborative process can be booby-trapped with all kinds of potential problems: "I cast actors before I knew what parts they were going to play and a soprano before I knew what music she was going to sing," Smucker says.

Despite its deliberately patchwork production history, meFausto manages to maintain an aesthetic unity that combines with the work's thematic content to create a provocative--if imperfect--piece. The show is undeniably dense, playing a theatrical game of chutes and ladders among the vagaries of semiotic theory and pop-cultural signification. Smucker says he doesn't want people to leave the theater feeling dumb, but you can expect to leave confused, knowing you've only caught a portion of the show's intended meanings. If this work is pretentious, it doesn't mean to be--and it does offer plenty of mesmerizing and delicious theatrical moments.

Three characters dominate the play: Ingrid (Elizabeth Teefy), Owen (Jim Lichtscheidel), and Simon (Leif Jurgensen) meet at a bar and begin a conversation about the evils of the media--particularly the ways TV journalism falsely simplifies complex stories into pretty, plastic gems. Because these three are part of the information McNugget mill they so despise--one is in advertising, another in TV news--they figure they are best equipped to turn the system on its head, just for the taste of it. And so they decide to invent, promote, and eventually debunk a meaningless notion--in fact, a physical gesture--that's too complicated and silly to describe here. The Gesture quickly sweeps the globe, as shown in a comic montage of blackouts where various people with funny accents show how cross-cultural communication has been made easy. The Gesture even winds up in a commercial parodying Calvin Klein's spots for Obsession.

In the scenes that follow, our (anti)heroes fail to sabotage their prank as they'd intended. Instead, having discovered a skeleton key to the valuable vaults of American popular language, they become stars. Two of them pair off to run a governmental agency for the promotion of clear language--the language police by a different name--while the third, Simon, is left to watch them become monsters of demagoguery. Though this character almost wins our sympathy, as the play's title suggests, the dubious trio is meant to embody Faust and Mephistopheles at once.

As the plot highlights the communicative powers of a hand signal, 15 Head's production conveys its content most convincingly through movement and music. The company has always prided itself on its use of the soundtrack. Here, a blues guitarist plays his instrument off to one side of the stage. When an opera singer joins in, running through the theme from Carmen, the combined effect is culturally dissonant but harmonically delicious.

A similar effect is achieved with the setting, a bare stage lined on three sides by hanging pipes. In one scene, actors hit each pipe, creating a hollow crash that reverberates for minutes. Yet there's no particular message reverberating here; our ears are simply flushed with sound as the language of the characters becomes increasingly clear--and increasingly meaningless.

meFausto, then, is a play about a communications breakdown, and the story hits its climax when Simon stands in a phone booth trying to reach Ingrid. He dials and redials, each time hearing a different message in Ingrid's voice, each time finding himself disconnected before he can leave his own message. As Ingrid's sentences are chopped into a repetitive, hypnotic chant, Simon literally climbs the walls of the booth, folding his body in on itself until he hangs upside-down. Then the phone booth is wheeled offstage.

15 Head is indeed a group of contortionists, though once this show has been wheeled to a close, the significance of the experience can prove elusive. The greatest problem with 15 Head's design-heavy approach is that its work tends to fumble with its more intellectual notions, tossing them in the air like so many rune stones and leaving the audience to decipher the particular significance of the ways they land. As with Lulu and The Lady from the Sea, both handsomely conceived explorations of gender and sex, their grand themes can sometimes seem something less than grand, and even reductive. meFausto fails to offer any original insights that haven't been explored through modern dance (or, for that matter, the dramatic wordplay of Gertrude Stein). That 15 Head struts its Achilles' heel so convincingly is evidence of a talented company that is still in the process of finding its feet.

meFausto runs at Red Eye through May 23; call 306-2207.

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