The 18 audience members for Behind the Lid meet on Bleecker Street and are asked to descend into Lee Nagrin's Silver Whale Gallery, check their bags ("because you're going to do a lot of moving about"), and wait behind a black curtain. After a few minutes of listening to Nagrin's voice recite lines, one woman leaves ("I can't take it") and misses the curtain opening and Basil Twist beckoning us to move into a long corridor covered in multicolored fabric and low lights. Twist and a human-sized Lee Nagrin puppet with long white hair, a broad face, and blue eyes guide the group to the far end of the dark, womblike cave to a series of benches to watch a collection of dreamlike scenes spanning Nagrin's artistic career.
Nagrin, a performance and visual artist, passed away on June 7 at the age of 78, but, as Twist explains in a director's note, the "genesis of the project came nine years ago," and the collaboration between the two appears to have been an intense and personal one. Twist's puppets — a talking totem pole, his own head in a box with marionettes, a dancing Einstein with mushroom cloud, and many interpretations of Nagrin — evoke a messy arts-and-crafts aesthetic free of pretension and artifice, although the journey on which the audience embarks is filled with intellectual challenges.
Broken into nine scenes, with three seating stations, the production is a sort of amusement-park ride for the mind. At one point the platform of seats actually moves and progresses through different scenarios, followed by a trip through a gallery of Nagrin's work (with wine and crackers) that culminates in an outdoor gazebo. The most powerful moment comes at the end and involves a life-size witchlike puppet with a video projection of Nagrin's face telling stories about Hannah Arendt, Joseph Chaikin, and producing Ionesco's The Bald Soprano. It's difficult to imagine a more fitting memorial to the artist: Twist has managed to resurrect Lee Nagrin, and, as she appears to speak from the dead, the effect is both comforting and chilling.
Presented by Street Dance Productions at Silver Whale Gallery, 21 Bleecker St., NYC. June 12-July 13. Tue.-Sun., 8 p.m. (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.