Think of it as a hall of mirrors: the smallest action reflected from every angle in a cavernous space. Think of it as an infinitely malleable film loop: every motion slowed down or doubling back on itself or sliced into a collage of its component frames. Think of it as an experiment in multi-plane, 3-D stagecraft, with the performers often deployed front to back, from practically in the audience's lap to the far wall of the Wiltern Theatre on Friday--and even the supertitles floating in the air as if they were carved calligraphic sculptures.
Susan Marshall's staging of "Les Enfants Terribles," the new "dance opera spectacle" by Philip Glass, invents so many striking ways to dice, dupe and display movement onstage that the 100-minute performance sustains a sense of magical intricacy, rather like an amazing card trick or juggling act.
Just don't think of it as drama: The doomed teenage brother and sister from Jean Cocteau's 1929 cult novel (later a film) of the same title are now simultaneously sung and danced by eight different people--one singer per role, three dancers. And, unfortunately, all this dazzling physical multiplication proves emotionally divisive: The obsessive relationship between Lise and Paul never comes alive, never seems more than a pretext for Marshall's structuralist extravaganza.
At the very end, however, the director-choreographer suddenly, unaccountably descends to crude Neo-Expressionism: a murder-suicide concealed behind a translucent curtain, with a gush of red light heightening the obvious once the climactic gunshot goes off. Isn't there some mid-ground between formalism and melodrama?
The work forms the third part of a groundbreaking Glass trilogy based on Cocteau films. In "Orphee," he translated his source into an opera. In "La Belle et la Be^te," he replaced the original soundtrack with music of his own, requiring the singers and instrumental ensemble to perform in sync with the film projected behind them. The newest work extends Glass' vision into movement theater.
Besides Marshall's seven dancers, "Les Enfants Terribles" relies on three keyboard players and four singers, with the French text supplemented by English narration. By itself, the nonstop cascade of rippling pianistic figurations propels the performance, replacing the narrative drive missing in the staging and underpinning its array of theatrical and choreographic effects.
Not only do the singers and dancers interact in complex and surprising ways, but the layered sets by Douglas Stein also become full participants. The result should be the complete fusion of the arts that opera composers have sought through the ages. But, in fact, a fatal disjunction occurs between the fast and loose postmodern vocabulary of the dancers and the conventional opera-house vocalism of the singers.
The first two Cocteau source films in Glass' trilogy had mythological characters suitable for operatic voices, but why must the constantly bickering, colloquial 20th century teenagers of "Les Enfants" sound like Pelleas and Melisande? It's simply too bloated a style for their speech rhythms, the way they mock one another's pretensions and their inarticulate attempts to express their deepest needs.
Moreover, only in Lise's defiant outburst at the end does Glass fully exploit the expressive potential of the operatic voices he has chosen. Earlier, such passages as Paul's letter scene retreat into emotionally drab, neo-conversational understatement--another reason why the desperate, un-consummated relationships in the narrative never come alive.
Although they all look too old for their roles, the cast members help make "Les Enfants Terribles" impressive as a grand-scale experimental showpiece, if nothing else. Baritone Philip Cutlip may seem too self-possessed as Paul and soprano Christine Arand too openly manipulative as Lise, but they sing splendidly, assisted by Hal Cazalet and Valerie Komar as the friends who love and trust them far too much.
Among the dancers, Mark DeChiazza and Eileen Thomas tirelessly lead the Paul-and-Lise clones through Marshall's daring compendium of gesture, gymnastics and ceaseless swoop-and-swirl modern dance, looking enviably fit in revealing costumes by Kasia Walicka-Maimone. Robert Wierzel designed the varied, atmospheric lighting. The heroic keyboardists were Nelson Padgett, Eleanor Sandresky and Glass himself. Beatrice Jona Affron ably conducts.
* "Les Enfants Terribles" continues today, 8 p.m., at the California Center for the Performing Arts, 340 N. Escondido Blvd., Escondido. $28-$46. (760) 738-4120.