SQUAT THEATRE BENDS LIMITS OF STAGECRAFT
by Richard Christiansen, Entertainment editor. Chicago Tribune Chicago, Ill.: May 16, 1986. pg. 8
One of the distinguishing marks of contemporary avant-garde theater has been its development of a highly sophisticated stagecraft that enlarges our vision of theater's possibilities through a complex use of sound and light techniques. This is true of the grand opuses of Robert Wilson, which we have never seen here, and it is true of the relatively small performance pieces of the New York-based Squat Theatre, which is having its Chicago premiere this weekend in the Briar Street Theatre.
The piece being presented here, under sponsorship of the Museum of Contemporary Art's admirable "Electronic Language" program, is "Dreamland Burns," a 90-minute mix of film and live performance that has an almost childlike, dreamlike fascination, all the more remarkable because it's created with high technology.
Some of the piece's symbolic elements are baffling, but over all, it's quite accessible, with a bizarre but understandable story line and a series of startling stage tricks that keep it lively.
Founded by a group of immigrants from Hungary, Squat is an interesting blend of new European and old U.S. avant-garde.
The first half of "Dreamland Burns" is a black-and-white film, about a young woman who has moved into a new apartment, that has the look and acting caliber reminiscent of a 1960s underground film by Adolfas Mekas or Shirley Clarke. (In fact, Clarke plays the girl's mother in the movie.)
The remainder of the show is a live theater piece that suddenly takes off into a fantasy world from behind the movie screen just after the film has shown the young woman dropping off into sleep.
The girl, in the two dimensions of the film and in the three dimensions of the Briar Street stage, is portrayed by Eszter Balint, daughter of Stephan Balint, the play's author and director, and the female star of the recent oddball film "Stranger Than Paradise." Other characters stepping out from "Dreamland Burns' " realistic movie, including a cab driver who also is a palm reader (Peter Berg), join her in the surrealistic stage world. Still others, including the girl's petty crook boyfriend and an old wino she meets coming home, are represented on stage by life-size dummies, onto which motion pictures of their talking faces are periodically projected.
The plot, which finds the young woman meeting a number of bizarre persons in life (on film) and in her dream (on stage), is never "resolved," and the acting, which has the girl engaged in conversations with live actors and the inanimate dummies, is in the elementary, improvisatory vein.
But the piece, which lasts about 90 minutes without intermission, is never boring, and its very complicated co-ordination of film and stage techniques comes off practically without a hitch.
Shadowy projections, pop-up props, tricky musical effects, crashing scenery, painted curtains, twinkling illumination, and bits of smoke and fire all contribute to such singular images as that of the Virgin Mary descending from the heavens with a neon halo behind her.
Into this dream landscape wander the young woman, her girl friend, that weirdo cab driver, the three men who moved her into her apartment and even a little girl who crawls out of a carpet and picks up bits of debris before making her exit in the rear.
It's a fantastic world, achieved through the latest in technical methods.
A film and theater piece created by Squat Theatre and presented by the Museum of Contemporary Art. Written and directed by Stephan Balint, with a set by Eva Buchmuller with Kuba Gontarczyk and Jim St. Clair, neons by Rudi Stern, lighting by Joe Beirne and Anne DeMarinis, and original music by the Lounge Lizards, Tony Noguira and Rammellzee. Opened May 15 at the Briar Street Theatre, 3133 N. Halsted St., and played again at 8:30 p.m. May 16 and 17. Length of performance, 1:30.