George Coates' works are dreamscapes. Logic and gravity don't apply. The images float above the stage, like fish seen through the window of a bathysphere. Look at the way they light up! And these fish know how to sing opera.
The next thing you know, the fish has turned into an astronaut. When Coates' magic works, you hold your breath. When it doesn't work, you wonder if the stage isn't too earthbound to capture such an evanescent vision. Perhaps Coates' real metier is holograms.
"Rare Area," Coates' new piece at the Doolittle Theatre, both confirms and denies this suspicion. It doesn't have a plot but it does convey the sense of a journey. The journey-takers are four: a tenor (John Duykers), a soprano (Kathryn Neale), a mime (Hitomi Ikuma) and a low comic who wonders what the hell is going on here (Sean Kilcoyne).
Some of the audience may be wondering the same thing, but there is no problem staying with the piece once the viewer decides not to try to add it up until it's over. (It's short enough to allow this: only about an hour.)
Our travelers start out in a place that might be the tropics--Cynthia Du Val's costumes suggest that it's Noel Coward's tropics, where only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun--and they end up in a place where it's necessary to wear \o7 coats, \f7 which may or may not be a pun. In between, they find themselves projected into all sorts of imaginary landscapes (rather, the landscapes are projected behind them) and into all sorts of situations.
The backgrounds (designed by Jerome Sirlin) can be as abstract as a cracked ice floe or as real as a photomural. The situations tend to be patterned. An image of peril--a figure dangling from the ledge of a flatiron-style building, guarded by a man and a woman in red--will convey the idea of danger, but no sense that anyone is actually in it. Everything's behind glass, possibly the glass of a TV set. (We see the comic snoozing in front of his TV.)
Some of the situations are funny. Duykers becomes a smiling public man, possibly a President, surreptitiously coached by his smiling public wife, Neale, as to what to say, or rather what to sing.
Here, as throughout the piece, composer Marc Ream gives them a sweet, wistful, wordless music that recalls the purity of Renaissance part-singing. For music so uninsistent, it's surprising how we miss it when it stops.
"Rare Area" isn't trying to stun us, but to beguile us, just as the Elizabethan court masques, with their dances and their "transformations," must have intrigued their audiences. It's essential in such cases, though, that the viewer not see the trick.
We're charmed at the Doolittle when three figures swing in space, seemingly divorced from their lower halves. It's less intriguing when the spill from the lights reveals their legs, taking baby-steps up and down a ramp.
This may have been a technical snafu, but there were other moments Tuesday when we thought we could see the little man behind the curtain. It's hard to do that and still get lost in a piece. The best theater magicians these days never let you in on the trick or, even more cleverly, let you in on it right away, so that you can look past it.
On the other hand, Coates made true theater magic when he had three figures roll down the ramp, their weight demonstrating the gravity that "Rare Area" generally tries to rise above. The simplicity of the image was elegant, and the ending of the show suggested that Coates may be on the verge of a change in his art.
Earlier, the characters had displayed electronified banners that bristled with ever-changing color signals, like a TV set that couldn't hold a channel. Now they took the banners out of the projected light, and we saw that the flags were only plain cloth.
Then they broke the shafts of the banners, almost in a spirit of gladness--like someone making a gift. The reference to Prospero renouncing his magic in "The Tempest" was unmistakable. "Rare Area" may not send Coates into holograms at all, but into a barer and purer kind of theater. It will be at the Doolittle through Aug. 24.
'RARE AREA" A music theater spectacle at the James A. Doolittle Theatre. Presented by George Coates Performance Works. Producer Charles Rose. Executive producer Colleen Larkin. Executive director Edward Sisson. Director Coates. Associate director Melissa Weaver. Music Marc Ream. Set design and scenic projections Jerome Sirlin. Costume design Cynthia Duval. Overhead lighting and technical direction Larry Neff. With John Duykers, White Eagle, Kathryn Neale, Fabienne, Kathy Knight, Sean Kilcoyne, Hitomi Ikuma. Musicians: Larry Schneider, Chris Halaby, Jamie Robertson, Barbara Imhoff, Eric Muhler, Jarell Irvin. Plays Wednesdays-Thursdays at 8 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays at 8 and 10 p.m., Sundays 3 and 8 p.m.; closes Aug. 24. Tickets $14-$22. 1615 N. Vine St., (213) 462-6666.