Stepping into the theater at the Axiom, where Infernal Bridegroom Productions has opened Richard Foreman's Symphony of Rats, is a bit like walking into some strange, wonder-filled attic. Splattered across the cinder-block walls of the theater is a crazy quilt of cartoon images -- TVs, spaceships, skeletons. Provocative messages painted in Crayola colors that say things like "Oil Isn't Fuck Glitter" and "CB Head Face Machine" drift in the melee on the walls. Scattered across the floor are official-looking manila folders and papers of every sort. And in the middle of the stage is an enormous Plexiglas box. Gaze at this psychedelic landscape long enough, and it begins to take on its own weird logic, especially given the acid trip of a show that Symphony of Rats soon becomes.
The hour-and-a-half-long ride through Foreman's formidable imagination takes us deep into the land of the avant-garde, where presidents can receive messages from space-alien robots who make bubbles and smoke cigarettes as they delve into philosophical discussions about knowledge and the constructs by which we live.
The president (played with impish innocence by Paul Locklear) of this strange world is in a bit of a crisis. He's hearing messages from "outer space" but doesn't know whether he can trust them. "What am I aware of?" he asks, only to admit, "I don't know." The president then embarks upon his non-narrative, magical journey into the very nature of knowledge, struggling to figure out what's real. And while it's a bit unclear exactly where our man of the hour ends up, we can say for sure that aliens, sex, music and a delightful bit of dancing are all involved in the president's quest.
Symphony of Rats A New Brain
Of course, the president can't just up and go off to places like "Tornadoland" without making a few folks mad. His odd staff, consisting of two men (Noel Bowers and Walt Zipprian) and two women (Tamarie Cooper and Charlesanne Rabensburg), does everything it can to get in his way. In one bizarre scene, his staffers try really hard to get him into presidential shape by teaching him the art of golf. Their efforts end with him standing on his desk whacking a club against the Plexiglas walls of his office.
The women take on a series of identities as the president sets out on his curious trip (which is called many things, including "a profound experience of elsewhereness"). These ladies can be tempting seductresses in flouncy coral-colored gowns or frightening, black-clad dominatrixes. Their eyes are painted in aqua and fuchsia, and their hair frizzes out in scary halos around their heads. They talk about such strange things as "artificial food" projects and making cookies for the president. And the men are Secret Service goons. Dressed in suits and aviator glasses, they spend a good deal of time poking the president with stoogelike menace or skulking around the edges of the stage, watching over the proceedings.
The logic of all this works only if you're willing to let Foreman have his way with you. He's said that he wants his plays to disrupt our experience of narrative so that we can "become absorbed in the moment-by-moment representation of psychic freedom." And as directed by Troy Schulze and Charlie Scott, Rats manages to undo all our narrative expectations, even as it offers a compelling collage of theatrical experiences. Mixed into the journey are some wonderfully weird dance numbers that have been choreographed with hysterical precision by Tamarie Cooper.
That's not all of the show's strangeness. At one point, one of the women makes interesting sound effects by pulling a condom over a microphone. Oftentimes the characters are compelled to bend over and speak into a microphone that's only a foot off the floor. And toward the end, eight-foot-tall "semi-human" robot puppets (maneuvered by Jeff Miller and Karina Pal-Montaño) roll onto the stage, where they say scary philosophical things even as they offer ice cream and bubbles from their bellies. There's no story here, only surreal moments filled with the strange sort of light produced by art that can shatter your world -- if you let it.
Through March 13 at the Axiom, 2425 McKinney, 713-522-8443. $10$15.
Charming and strange, William Finn and James Lapine's odd little musical A New Brain fits perfectly on the small stage at the Masquerade Theatre. Not the stuff of typical musicals, A New Brain tells the story of Gordon Michael Schwinn (Luther Chakurian), a songwriter who is hospitalized early in the story because of a brain illness, or, as the song says, "Trouble in His Brain."
Over the course of his illness, we get to meet Gordon's family, and when his brain operation doesn't go exactly as planned, we also learn a lot about his rather peculiar imagination.
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Among his most powerful supporters is his soulful mother, Mimi, whose maternal fears and anguish are captured perfectly by Stephanie Bradow, especially in her dusky-voiced version of "The Music Still Plays On." Gordon also gets support from his hunky lover, Roger Delli-Bovi, played by Ilich Guardiola with starry-eyed sweetness and a dreamy singing voice.
One of the best things about A New Brain is the story's quirky humor. Gordon has a "nice nurse" (Kory Kilgore) and a "thin nurse" (Laura Gray) who treat him as their names imply. He's also got a recurring nightmare in the form of a giant frog named Mr. Bungee (Russell Freeman). Mr. Bungee is the megalomaniacal star of a children's show for which Gordon writes songs, and when Gordon goes into the hospital, he can't get the demanding amphibian out of his head.
The strong cast has been directed with care by Phillip Duggins, who is helped by the talents of choreographer Laura Gray. Both the show's direction and its choreography have been toned down to fit Masquerade's small theater, making it one of the most successful the company has staged since its formation. -- Lee Williams
Through March 13 at the Masquerade Theatre, 1537 North Shepherd, 713-861-7045. $21-$26.