NEW YORK — Nine years ago, a small radical-theater collective from Budapest came to this country fleeing the censorship of the Hungarian authorities, looking for a new home in the New World.
Dressed like hippies, with thick accents and strange premonitions of America as a land of gangsters and Andy Warhol look-alikes, they called themselves Squat Theatre. They planned to make performances that would be as startling and untamed as the very streets of New York City they suddenly found themselves walking.
Fortunately, rents happened to be relatively inexpensive in New York nine years ago. A two-story storefront on West 23rd Street proved just big enough for the six adults and four children that then made up the collective. With its large plate-glass window looking onto the street, the storefront seemed the perfect setting for bringing the chaotic violence of the city's streets directly into the theater.
Faked gangland murders, blazing fires, blaring pop music and kidnapings of passers-by became known as the trademarks of Squat's radical theater, in performances such as "Pig Child Fire," "Andy Warhol's Last Love" and "Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free." Occasionally, the real police were called in when someone on the street thought they were seeing an actual crime.
It was enough to make even the most jaded New Yorkers peer inquisitively through the large plate-glass window. If it seemed somewhat dangerous to see people brandishing guns from off the street or flames licking the ceiling of the theater--and Squat was occasionally accused of such reckless endangerment--it didn't, eventually, seem to alarm anyone.
After all, spectators on either side of the plate-glass window never truly knew whose perspective was more real, more true to life. Whatever danger existed seemed to become subsumed in Squat's surreal theatrical vision. If anything, Squat found itself rewarded for taking such risks: That very first year, the collective received its first Obie award from the Village Voice.
Almost nine years and many awards later, Squat Theatre lost its lease on that infamous storefront. (It also lost all but three of its founding members--a loss the surviving members don't seem willing to comment on.) Now, for the first time, it has created a performance suited to more traditional theater. As a result, Los Angeles audiences will have their first chance to see the collective in its latest performance, "Dreamland Burns," Thursday and Friday at the Japan America Theatre.
"Dreamland Burns" turns the group's caustic confusion of theater and reality into a dreamy meditation on its adopted American context. Instead of a window looking onto the real world, a 45-minute black-and-white film, written and directed by Stephan Balint and starring his 20-year-old daughter Eszter, has been substituted. The film acts as a documentary of Eszter's character's day--a day in which she moves into her first apartment and loses her boyfriend (played by August Darnell of Kid Creole & the Coconuts), only to be confronted by a soothsayer taxi driver recently emigrated from Eastern Europe.
When at the end of the day the film ends, we are transported through a fiery scrim into the performance that is her dream--a dream in which the cab driver engineers her boyfriend's murder.
"You can imagine how after eight years of doing what we did in that storefront--looking out into the streets and finding endless Manhattan--how that ended up in the work," says Eszter, who has been in all of Squat's productions and who made her screen debut last year in Jim Jarmusch's surprise hit, "Stranger Than Paradise." (She has also done an episode on "Miami Vice.")
"But you can also imagine how scared we all felt with a traditional situation where the curtain rises and someone just walks on stage."
For her father, the move into a traditional theater space was fraught with difficulty.
"When you read in a book that Mr. Smith entered the room through the door, you do not even pay attention," Stephan says nervously, puffing a cigarette. "In the theater, when a door opens and Mr. Smith comes in, I just have to stand up and leave, because I usually just don't believe it."
With the storefront, he says, these hidebound conventions of theatrical realism were easy enough to subvert. "When Mr. Smith entered from the street, he was entering from a believably real world. But his action also became art. When Mr. Smith entered the storefront from the street, he only did so because he was in the piece."