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Reza Abdoh's 'Remains' Premieres in New York : Stage: The finale of a trilogy that started with 'Hip-Hop' at LATC is based on the Jeffrey Dahmer case.

February 18, 1992|RICHARD STAYTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Southern Californians have witnessed Reza Abdoh's in-your-face assaultive style at the defunct Los Angeles Theatre Center. Now in "The Law of Remains," New Yorkers are confronting a similar experience.

Saturday night, Abdoh mooned Manhattan.

In a decrepit hotel less than a block from Times Square, members of Abdoh's newly formed bicoastal performance company, Dar A Luz, dropped their pants and shoved their derrieres into the faces of New York critics, European festival producers, and a standing-room-only audience of hipsters in search of the avant-garde. They were lured in part by the reputation of Abdoh's 1990 Off Off Broadway success, the user-friendly "Father Was a Peculiar Man."

After an 85-minute, intermissionless blitz of visual and aural shock-therapy theater, "The Law of Remains," Abdoh's latest world premiere, provokes an overwhelming sense of apathy.

Abdoh's current multimedia spectacle employs nudity, sado-masochistic sexual rites, furious dance choreography, a rock decibel sound text, necrophilia, cannibalism, hand-held lighting and video imagery. The finale of a trilogy that included "The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice" and "Bogeyman," it features several of the same actors, in particular the mesmerizing, acrobatic Guiliana Francis. Technicians who worked on "Hip-Hop" and "Bogeyman" have also followed Abdoh to Manhattan for the trilogy's finale.

Indeed, the event could be christened "The Remains of LATC," since the theater's former producing director Diane White is making her independent production debut and has drafted numerous LATC personnel.

Unfortunately, missing from the trilogy's finale is former LATC designer Timian Alsaker, whose modernist costumes and ironic sets formed a perfect marriage with Abdoh's staging. (Previous contractual commitments kept Alsaker in Europe.) Here, Abdoh's set designer is Sonia Balassanian, whose pedantic, formulaic landscapes are indebted to German artist Anselm Kiefer.

Also missing is Tom Fitzpatrick, a veteran of Abdoh's previous nine productions, who inhabited Abdoh's arch performance style with a naturalness beyond the range of Dar A Luz's male actors.

But the New York location provides a perfect fin de siecle environment for Abdoh's themes of decay, death and afterlife. Lead-based paint dangles like shreds of flesh from the hotel walls. Friezes of naked children cavort on the ballroom's balcony boxes.

"The Law of Remains" is structured inside serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's psyche. There, Andy Warhol, the epitome of media detachment, is improvising a movie based on the lurid Dahmer court transcripts.

But no synopsis can do justice to a dense Abdoh text. The Dahmer story is also broken into seven fragments based on "The Egyptian Book of the Dead." The audience is guided as if through Hades--sometimes by ushers, sometimes by harsh taped commands--through the seven stages of death, finally climbing a narrow staircase to heaven (i.e., the ballroom).

Dahmer's paradise includes sex with Ronald Reagan, a facelift, and murders of women by chain saw and stones.

Not to worry. There is a God in Dahmer's hell of a heaven: a permanently-aroused Puerto Rican drag queen named after the Mexican ranchera singer Lola Beltran.

"The Law of Remains" comes closest to achieving Abdoh's desired impact when the audience is crowded in the dark, claustrophobic cabaret space. There it feels like an underground late-night sex club in a futurist fascist state. Actors strip, wallow in stage blood and fake human entrails, hang naked from harnesses and screech into microphones. A chorus line of naked men and women dripping with red paint could be a danse macabre image out of Bosch.

A particularly effective sequence re-enacts the 911 phone call that led to the police returning a 14-year-old to Dahmer's apartment--where he was murdered.

But "The Law of Remains" can't compete with the nightly news. Nothing Abdoh stages could come close to the horror of the dry litany of facts that emerged from that Milwaukee courthouse, just as no art can ever reproduce the actual experience of Auschwitz. Only our imaginations can do that. Abdoh's grimly serious, relentlessly cluttered, hostile assault on what he sees as a media-drugged, pornographic culture leaves no freedom for our imaginations.

The minimal humor and lack of humanism in this Grand Guignol circus ultimately undermines Abdoh's goals.

With its finale in New York, you sadly realize that Abdoh's trilogy has descended from the fertile promise of "Hip-Hop." He has made a wrong turn, repeating the self-indulgent excesses of "Bogeyman." Now the trilogy seems to belong to a tradition other than the avant-garde, that of heavy-metal.

Like heavy metal, Abdoh's ensemble attempts to overwhelm an audience with sensual overkill. In the music's videos, sadomasochism and death imagery dominate; ditto for this Abdoh show. This theater becomes art for the adolescent: angry, self-absorbed, confused.

At 27, Abdoh has time to mature as an artist. He clearly has a dedicated company of performers and technicians willing to do absolutely anything his visions dictate. But for now Abdoh has shoved the avant-garde's "shock of the new" where the moon don't shine.

* "The Law of Remains": Presented by Dar A Luz at the Diplomat Hotel, 116 West 43rd St., New York, 8 p.m. Thursdays -Saturdays through March 14. Tickets: $12. Reservations: (212) 826-6585.

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