An actor grabs hold of a sheet of plastic tarp and hugs it to his body. Amplified through a microphone, the crackle of the crumpling material sounds almost like the slam and twist of metal -- the noise made by crashing planes on a date now seared into the world's consciousness.
It's one of the few evocative moments in "11 September 2001," an otherwise stupefying theatrical presentation that will be repeated through Sunday at REDCAT in a collaboration between CalArts' Center for New Theater and France's Theatre Dijon Bourgogne. The French government withheld part of its promised support for the project out of nervousness over the way the script juxtaposes documented statements by President Bush and Osama bin Laden. Provocative as that might sound, it's rendered essentially toothless in this morass of self-conscious experimentalism.
French playwright Michel Vinaver constructed much of his script from news accounts of what happened in the hijacked planes and inside the shattered buildings, as well as details subsequently learned about the terrorists. These by now familiar stories are enduringly compelling, and certain phrases -- such as "fragile beauty under assault" -- jump poetically out of Vinaver's text.
But in an attempt to distance viewers from their reflexive reactions to 9/11, director Robert Cantarella, from the Dijon theater, has incorporated all manner of burps and tics.
Performed straight through, Vinaver's text would fill just a bit more than 20 minutes, but here it's presented three times back-to-back (four, if you count a wordless passage, rendered in snapshot poses) with little variation. Snippets of stage direction are spoken aloud, and the 11 performers -- current and former CalArts students -- are cycled through the parts without regard to gender or ethnicity. One actor will intone "male voice," for instance. A woman might then raise her hand and walk to a microphone, where she will speak the male part. Some of these accounts are spoken not into a stand mike but into a body mike worn by another actor, so that the performer must hunch over and speak into a colleague's chest.
Each phrase is spoken at about the same pitch, with little inflection. Long pauses gape open. Certain lines are paired with ritualistic, robotic movements, such as jumping in place or balancing a metal folding chair on one's head.
Then an actor crashes through a tumbling mat that has been balanced upright to form a wall, and in the instant he hurtles toward the floor, he calls to mind those bodies plummeting from the World Trade Center. That fraction of a second conveys more than the other 75 minutes of this presentation combined.
'11 September 2001'
Where: REDCAT, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 2nd and Hope streets, Los Angeles
When: 8:30 p.m. today and Sunday
Price: $24 and $28
Contact: (213) 237-2800
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes