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Stage Review : 'Garden' Cultivates Vision Of Hell

October 11, 1985|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

Two things that can't be conveyed in a photograph: the ugliness of the facade of the new James A. Doolitle Theatre in Hollywood (formerly the Huntington Hartford), and the beauty of its first show, Martha Clarke's "The Garden of Earthly Delights."

The first brings to the mind's eye the image of the Hartford facade as we have known it since the 1950s, coupled with the devout wish that it had been left alone. As a building, it had the clean lines of its time, and it read from the street as a theater. The new facade, with its red metal scaffolding and bare concrete, reads like a construction site--and an instant 1980s architectural cliche.

Happily, a facade is only a facade. The new Doolittle's refurbished lobby and auditorium are quite spiffy. (The scaffolding that frames the proscenium is no less self-conscious a design element than the old Harlequin figures were, but it disappears when the lights are down.) Where it counts, this is still the Hartford, where actor and audience know they are in the same boat. When Adam and Eve bit into the apple in "The Garden of Earthly Delights" on Wednesday night, we could hear the crunch.

What's unphotographable in Clarke's show--and words don't do very well either--is the sense of stepping into a world that we don't know from real-life experience, yet seem to remember having dreamed. Clarke's inspiration was the fantastical paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1500. But Bosch had tapped into a universal stream, and you don't have to know his paintings to understand, from this staging, what he was getting at.

Something like the moral of the modern horror movie: "Night of the Living Dead," say. Except that Bosch isn't playing Halloween games. His vision brings to mind Mephistopheles' remark when Dr. Faustus asks him what he's doing out of hell. "Why, this is hell; nor am I out of it."

The calmness of the statement is what's scary. Clarke's stage version of Bosch's great triptych, "The Garden of Earthly Delights," has a similar composure. To begin with, its 10 performers move in silence, to sounds provided by a background consort, sometimes plangent sounds, sometimes raucous ones. (Richard Peaslee was the composer.)

Theirs isn't so much the silence of the dancer as the dumbness of an animal or even a vegetable. At first, there's nothing alarming about that. Clarke's people assume some odd shapes in the Garden of Eden sequence, but it's merely a reminder that God could have designed humans with four legs and could have given trees immortal souls. The randomness--even the wit--of Creation is stressed.

Even the munching of the apple seems innocent, merely another interesting discovery that Adam and Eve made that day. But it marks the beginning of lust, greed and the other deadly sins. Now we're out of the Garden and into a potato patch, tended by gross villagers who stuff and relieve themselves at will. Brutish creatures, but their impulses are still fairly natural.

A viciousness has crept in, however. And by the final section, laid in hell, mankind has become totally corrupt. The only joy here is to spread torment. The music squeaks and squawks. A soul is crushed under a bass drum. The ghouls begin to fly into the audience like wasps. (The rigging is by Foy, the outfit that managed the flying effects in "Peter Pan," but we are not reminded of "Peter Pan.")

Then, magically, one of the damned picks up a cello and begins to play a strain as pure as those heard in the Garden. This leads to the cruelest section of all, ending with the impalement of a female ghoul on the cello's supporting peg. Bosch imagined his hell in detail.

What's disturbing is how recognizable it seems. Without Clarke's pushing the point, we can see the parallel to the Nazi camps, where good music was also played. Evidently this artist's vision wasn't rooted in medieval superstition, but in an unflinching appraisal of human viciousness, then and now. Hieronymus Bosch--our contemporary.

"The Garden of Earthly Delights"--ironic title!--takes little more than an hour to perform. Rather than a play it's a spell, something that one doesn't care to pick apart. Clarke deserves praise as its prime creator, but it is clearly a collaboration, with Peaslee's pungent score inseparable from Clarke's movement patterns, and Paul Gallo's moody lights helping the actors turn themselves into giraffes, beasties and things that go bump in the night.

Here are their names: Felix Blaska, Marie Fourcaut, Steven Silverstein, Lila York (alternating with Clarke, herself), Lisa Giobbi, Jonathan Spitz, Polly Styron, Rob Besserer, Bill Ryule, Tim Wengard. Turn a flash camera on them and they'd simply be performers in body suits. In the mind's eye, they people Bosch's world as completely as do the figures on his canvas. If this is the caliber of show that we can expect to see at the new Doolittle, perhaps we can tolerate its trendy new face lift.


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