'Song of Absence' plays a mournful melody of death and destruction

January 17, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

"Song of Absence in the Fall of the Ashen Reign" is like an over-ornamented, darkly woven tapestry in which bright images

occasionally shine through the busy stitching.

Conceived and directed by former Baltimorean Stacy Klein for her Boston-based company, Double Edge Theatre, the 65-minute piece -- currently at the Theatre Project -- is intended as an hommage to the Eastern European Hasidic culture that perished in the Holocaust. However, the nightmarish tone of this impressionistic work accentuates death and destruction more than that which was destroyed.

The first part of a projected trilogy, this highly physical production features five actors loosely portraying characters that include the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism; Polish novelist Bruno Schulz, who was murdered by the Nazis; and Isaac Bashevis Singer's Gimpel the Fool. Hebrew, Yiddish, English and German are all spoken in the course of the evening, but language serves primarily as a mood-setting device, similar to the musical score, which ranges from original compositions to Bach to a Fascist Yugoslavian rock group called Laibach.

Words and music overlap, often frantically, as "Song of Absence" presents repeated images of people pursued. This theme is accentuated by the physical configuration of the theater, which has been rearranged so the audience sits on raised benches on either side of a runway-like stage. The result is an elongated playing area that limits the variety of movement, most of which shifts back and forth like an apocalyptic tennis game.

The work is also excessively dependent on props. Although the actors' carefully choreographed interaction is one of the show's most impressive elements, it is often overshadowed by the nuts-and-bolts activities required to move and manipulate the props.

Still, there are times when the space and props come together in stunning imagery. For instance, a row of clothing is suspended from hangers at one end of the playing area; early on, the actors send the clothing hurtling across the room on jarringly noisy pulleys as if the disembodied apparel were in desperate flight. Later, the clothing is taken off the hangers revealing filmy white body-shaped armatures underneath. The effect is that of cobweb-covered skeletons; when these screech across the stage, the impact is haunting.

However, other images -- particularly that of a woman menstruating on stage prior to a ritual bath -- are shocking, if not offensive. Interestingly, this menstruation scene typifies what is absent from "Song of Absence." By emphasizing the ugliness of loss, over and above the cultural beauty of what has been lost, this otherwise startling work undercuts the reason to mourn.

@'Song of Absence' When: Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Sundays at p.m. Through Feb. 2.

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

Tickets: $10-$15.

Call: (410) 752-8558.

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