Lit by a single spotlight, a gray-haired actor rigidly stands at attention at the edge of the stage. Staring out at the audience, he says nothing. He does nothing. And so the audience waits — for what seems like an eternity — and grows increasingly restless. Soon the man is pelted with insults, crumpled playbills, and paper airplanes.
So begins the Living Theatre's production of its oft-revived Mysteries and Smaller Pieces, a legendary piece of experimental theatre first performed in 1964. Created by the historic company during its exile in Paris, Mysteries is a ritualistic piece of anti-theatre designed to forcibly blur the line between performer and spectator. More of a happening than a play, the mostly nonverbal Mysteries throws dramatic convention and structure to the wind. Combining improvisation, mysticism, and all-out sensory assault, the piece combines raw theatrical fragments and forces the audience to create a framework around them.
Though over 40 years old, many of the pieces still retain their beauty and power. In complete darkness, an actor improvises a Hindu raga while others slowly parade lighted incense sticks throughout the theatre — the stage filling with tiny, glowing red lights like an expanding galaxy. Another episode has the cast pull audience members on stage, now heavy with the scent of sandalwood, and join in a tantric-like hum that grows in intensity until it engulfs the entire space.
But other segments haven't aged quite as well, such as a series of snapshot poses (tableaux vivants) or an improvised sound-and-movement exercise now commonly taught in college acting classes. At times these drawn-out improvisations miss the mark of mantra-like repetition, verging instead on longwinded sessions of self-indulgence. Of course, these shortcomings are simply a testament to the Living Theatre's contributions to the avant-garde; what was revolutionary 40 years ago is now considered the foundation of experimental performance. And yet, watching Mysteries, one can't help but wonder what happens to the revolutionaries once the revolution has been won.
Presented by and at the Living Theatre, 21 Clinton St., NYC. Oct. 14-Nov.11. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m. (212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or www.theatermania.com or www.livingtheatre.org.