If you crave minimalist, character-driven drama where playwrights construct complex yet coherent plots, actors invest themselves in the psychology of their characters, and directors have a totalizing style and vision, then the sublimely subversive group with the officious-sounding name the National Theater of The United States of America is not for you. On the other hand, this troupe of merry pranksters offers "maximalist" experimental spectacle driven by myths and metaphors, arresting images, and restless slapstick and vaudeville. While their plays don't always add up, that's often beside the point—or, perhaps, that is the point: theater is not supposed to be an equation. The sum of their disparate parts—which includes influences as diverse as Dada cabaret, big Broadway extravaganzas, and the twilight zones of Sam Shepherd and David Lynch—always seems happily greater than the whole.
Their newest creation, ABSN: RJAB (Abacus Black Strikes NOW!: The Rampant Justice of Abacus Black), is their first to be performed in a "legitimate" theater space, P.S. 122, though some of their members have been working together since 1997.
Abacus is a parable about the stubborn quixotism that is necessary to pursue one's artistic calling in the face of technocratic philistines and corporate zombies who devour brains. At least, that was my reading of it.
To say that this theatrical event is "about" anything besides its own exuberant theatricality (and the sharing of experience that is its prerequisite) raises the very notion of theater that this group challenges. What makes theater unique as an art form is not plot or characters or a unifying vision but those momentary and too-often elusive experiences of participation in an event that is potentially transformative because it has the immediacy and liveliness of human interaction in a community.
After a purposefully alienating welcome by the show's impresario, the actors construct not one but two stages in the process of a dance sequence set to deafening glam rock. The first is a Coney Island-like sideshow proscenium arch, while the second is a small, slightly elevated "black-box" stage, which lurks behind it. Most of the action, however, takes place between these two frames. Narrators on the proscenium describe the 600-year journey of Abacus Black, an aging knight in search of the lost City of Gold, then reveal vignettes of this story behind the curtain while they strike poses as caryatids.
An impromptu third stage even appears at one point for a mock puppet show, which ends with the largest puppet flipping to become a costume for a character that is part sun god, part scarecrow, and part Texas chainsaw massacre. Later, near the end of his journey, Abacus himself transforms into a human marionette.
One of the most striking scenes occurs when Abacus wraps his legs like a knapsack over the shoulders of a disbelieving yet loyal shaman figure who plays Sancho Panza to Abacus's Don Quixote. The shaman carries Abacus on his back so they may continue their mythic quest. Distant wolf howls pierce the static noise of surf in the background, while a smoke arabesque forms a golden, apparitional aura around a plywood cutout of a saguaro.
The story, however, is quick to break down for poignant philosophical fillips, such as "this was in olden times when knowledge brought people together." The story is equally ready to serve up pointlessly surreal songs—one memorable number might be described as a zombie picnic with Mephistopheles meets The Sound of Music.
Although the dance numbers have more panache than precision and one can hear less than half of what Abacus says in his inaudible, synthesized wheeze, the faults of the production do not prevent it from being an odd sort of triumph. It succeeds as conceptual theater—where the concept is to have fun, and to take the risks that fun entails.
The troupe's frenetic energy is catching. Backstage, I imagine the sound and light crews were equally busy multitasking to provide all the smoke-and-mirror effects.
The last—and most lasting—image of the play depicts the decrepit Abacus sitting on his throne (which has turned into a cage), as if his mythic quest ended with him being a sideshow freak, his sallow face illuminated by a small florescent light. The cage is wheeled backward, and his face recedes slowly into the void of history even as he lives on as the Ancient of Days.
The National Theater's method is truly collaborative: each of its members writes, acts, directs, and lends whatever other skills he or she has to the production. This difficult, though not untenable, democratic ideal permeates their performances, too. In their depiction of the continual metamorphosis of the self, from private hallucinatory revelation to public spectacle within the shared space of theater, they may be doing something truly experimental—appealing beyond traditional downtown theater audiences.