Matthew Maguire, now an Obie Award-winning actor and chairman of the Department of Theater and Visual Art at Fordham University, got his start in theater with an adaptation of Max Ernst's collage novel The Seven Deadly Elements, which was presented at La MaMa in 1977. Since that time, he has experimented with all manner of genres and media. In celebration of La MaMa's 45th anniversary, he has returned to collage with the exquisitely crafted, if occasionally inscrutable, Abandon. George Braque and Pablo Picasso are credited with having invented collage as part of their early cubist experiments. Considered by many to be one of the most significant developments in 20th-century art, collage involves the juxtaposition of fragments from various works in various media in order to create a new piece of art. The technique was quickly adopted by visual artists as well as narrative and performance artists. It has been argued that theater was a multimedia form centuries before the term "multimedia" was coined, and, as such, it seems uniquely situated to take advantage of collage techniques.
Maguire has applied the concept of collage in as many ways as possible to Abandon. The stage's back wall is made up of three large screens, onto which are projected a series of stunning collages by Maguire. Video images are often projected as well, setting the backgrounds of the stills in motion. This visual score is accompanied by Andrew Ingavet's original music, itself a collage of fragments from a variety of genres. Acoustic, orchestral, and electronic moments are pasted together, sometimes segueing smoothly and sometimes crashing together with intentionally jarring suddenness.
Against this prerecorded landscape, actors walk a stage divided into zones by lines taped on the floor. While the projections and the music provide a kind of emotional roadmap, the performers bring a more concrete narrative. The scenes combine experimental dance theater with straightforward dialogue, juxtaposing narrative techniques to create yet another level of collage. When the actors step behind the screens they become living shadow puppets, blurring the line between foreground and background.
Unlike much of Maguire's early work, Abandon has a fairly linear plot. Helena (Alexis McGuinness) is a young woman traumatized by the loss of her mother and by the failure of her parents' relationship. Her sister, Marguerite (Genevieve Odabe), sees Helena avoiding any kind of emotional intimacy and tries to help her. The story has details and twists and turns, but it really serves as a frame for a thematic exploration of male-female relationships, both filial and sexual. While invitations to dance initially serve as metaphorical attempts at intimacy, the dances eventually become violent. At one point, the war of the sexes is presented via slow-motion recreations of pro-wrestling moves.
Many of the techniques employed will be familiar to anyone who's been through a couple of acting classes in recent decades. Actors walk in grid-like patterns, exploring postures and gestures that change their height to represent their fluctuating power relationships, among other things. What are usually experienced as classroom exercises, though, here become a precisely choreographed and codified series of moving images. The advantages of a long rehearsal process with dedicated collaborators are in evidence throughout.
The night I attended Abandon, it was intriguing to note that few of those in attendance were responsive to the production's considerable humor. Most of the audience seemed to be involved with what was onstage (with the exception of one gentleman who snickered derisively at moments), but there was very little laughter. This may have been in part because the projected images—surreal, haunting, apocalyptic—had established an atmosphere that didn't encourage laughter. But I suspect it had more to do with the way many audiences perceive this kind of work in general.
Too often, experimental theater is assumed to take both its subjects and itself extremely seriously. Audiences may feel they are expected to sit in a state of hushed reverence at even the most absurd images. As often as not, this kind of work can be seen as pretentious: something looks or sounds ridiculous, but audience members think they're not supposed to laugh. My advice to attendees of this show (and of others in this vein): if the actor makes a funny face, or the situation seems absurd, or the music reminds you for a moment of Pee Wee Herman, it's probably supposed to be funny. There's no need to stifle your chuckle.
Ultimately, Abandon isn't for everyone, but no successful work of art is. For adventurous audiences looking for a unique evening of theater, it's well worth the price of admission, and a trip to the theater that is arguably the birthplace of Off-Off Broadway.