A chorus of nine naked males clog dance to the bouncy rhythms of “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.” A boy with green hair is immersed upside down in a fish tank and whipped, his nude body sparkling with rings through his tongue, nipples, stomach and genitals. Somebody’s Fairy Godmother is carried onstage: a four-foot-high physically handicapped half-man, half-woman. All join in a chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”—but not until a black man is castrated with a chainsaw and his severed organ ritually devoured.
Welcome to the apocalyptic world of Reza Abdoh. For the 27-year-old enfant terrible director and writer, it’s poetic justice that the above scenes occurred in the final play developed by the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Bogeyman. And it’s equally appropriate that this multimedia extravangaza’s closing night was Oct. 13, 1991—the doomed theatre’s last day. The bogeymen unleashed in Abdoh’s work are at home on the edge, prophets in a society where apocalypse is just around the corner.
When you’re HIV-positive and not superjock Magic Johnson, when you’re an Iranian exile and a revolutionary artist, when you’re defiantly out of the closet and proud to be avant-garde, you don’t retire with a smile and go gently into that good night. You rage. You assault. You add insult to injury. You work while the theatre’s lights go dark all around you. You push yourself and others to extremes, even while friends plead that you rest, that you not defy AIDS or “alienate subscribers.” You shove truth into society’s face.
Or at least you do if you’re Reza Abdoh. The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice and Bogeyman, two parts of a projected trilogy on the themes of mortality and survival, were his 19th and 20th productions, not counting a horde of works conceived and directed during his adolescence. This month Abdoh’s bicoastal company, Dar A Luz Performance Works, premieres the trilogy’s final installment, The Law of Remains, in the ballroom of New York’s abandoned Diplomat Hotel on 44th Street. Those who don’t know his work should borrow advice from Heraclitus and expect the unexpected. They should also expect a shock of recognition.
Abdoh is frequently but inaccurately compared with experimental auteur Robert Wilson, though his work is far less static than Wilson’s and more crowded with the latest pop-culture icons. Another frequent comparison is with the irreverent, unpredictable Peter Sellars, but Abdoh’s approach is more politically confrontational. However, like Sellars, Abdoh is at the forefront of employing progressive technologies in live performance, especially in his use of sound and video. In its extremes, his work mirrors the dissonant eclecticism of German choreographer Pina Bausch, and his fragmented, multi-layered texts resemble the writing of that nation’s iconoclastic playwright Heiner Muller.
In a decade oppressed by economics and “safe” choices, Abdoh adheres to the experimental tradition of 1960s radical collectives like the Living Theater. He’s gathered a permanent ensemble of performers eager to stretch their limits of endurance (as well as an audience’s tolerance). His style is that of an outraged and outrageous born-again Artaud, carrying the French surrealist’s theatre of cruelty into the hot decade of the 1990s. Aloof irony no longer can suffice, Abdoh believes, while a society flirts with censorship. Just as Artaud ordered, Abdoh insists theatre artists must rage as if they’re burning at the stake, signalling through the flames.
Inevitably, such work defies critical analysis. Consider the division of opinions among critics over Bogeyman.
Los Angeles Times drama critic Sylvie Drake wrote a positive review: “Abdoh’s witches’ brew is…designed to shock and wants to be absorbed by osmosis, through the pores, the eyes, the ears, and no doubt other parts of the anatomy.” But on the same day, reacting to the same performance, Orange Country drama critic Tom O’Connor wrote a pan: “Few cliche turns of performance art are left unstoned in Bogeyman. What poses as a surreal, visionary meditation on the disintegration of the tribal family emerges as a tedious, repetitive series of noisy temper tantrums about growing up gay in an unhappy, repressive family.”
From another quarter, the alternative L.A. Weekly‘s Bill Raden anointed Abdoh’s work “the most important single piece of theatre in L.A. this year.” Simultaneously, the chief critic of the L.A. Reader, Cliff Gallo, mocked the show: “Abdoh transforms his visual assemblage into a spectacle that, ironically, makes Bogeyman as banal as anything produced by the commercial mainstream. In this light, Abdoh is the Andrew Lloyd Webber of the counterculture set.”
The controversy wasn’t limited to critics. LATC subscribers demanded their money back, walked out of the theatre, threatened to call the mayor and the police, cancelled their subscriptions. The Los Angeles Times received dozens of angry or supportive letters. (One letter writer described Bogeyman as “the play from hell.”)
The only theatrical personality indifferent to the controversy seemed to be its author.
A slight, dark, gentle, thin youth with a pockmarked complexion and sensitive eyes, Abdoh fueled the hostility by calmly reacting, “I’m not in the business of pandering to the audience. There are much more important issues than satisfying people’s taste buds. People who are offended are afraid of their own demons.”
Who is this impossibly young artist with the old-fashioned bohemian values? To his devotees—among them wealthy patrons and dedicated followers willing to sacrifice far more lucrative careers for the chance to work with him—Abdoh is a theatrical visionary. To his critics, he’s a self-indulgent emperor without clothes ruling a bankrupt avant-garde. To friends, he’s a broke, compassionate, compelling, vulnerable reincarnation of Jean Cocteau.
Abdoh was born in Tehran to an Italian mother, Homa, and an Iranian father, Ali Muhammed Abdoh, who met in Europe when she was 15 and he was 33. Ali Muhammed, who had graduated from the University of Maryland using the pseudonym “Alan Morgan,” was a naturalized American, star boxer and volleyball player whose family’s agricultural holdings provided considerable wealth. After marrying, he returned triumphant with his teenage bride to his homeland in 1961, and on a hunch, built Tehran’s first bowling alley. Bowling revolutionized the city’s nightlife, quickly becoming the “in” activity among high-society Iranians. Soon Ali Muhammed owned numerous sports businesses and even purchased a popular soccer team.
Such prosperity did little to improve family harmony. “My mother had a poet’s soul inside a housewife’s body,” Abdoh recalls. “Wives of wealthy Iranian men became automatons.” Listening to him describe his childhood impressions, one senses elements from his productions. His parents had “a relationship based on fear rather than mutual respect” (as do the perversely abusive members of the shattered nuclear family of Bogeyman); theirs was “a patriarchal, domineering authoritarianism” (a central theme of Father Was a Peculiar Man, Abdoh’s 1990 environmental spectacle, mounted in the Manhattan meat-packing district under the aegis of En Garde Arts); his father “projected this image of a demi-god” (an image made literal in The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice, a gender-switched hallucination based on the Orpheus myth, staged first at LATC, then at the Festival of the Americas in Montreal).
Although he denies creating art as therapy, the extreme imagery of Abdoh’s later work must reflect scenes from his childhood. “There was a lot of physical violence toward both my mother and me,” he says of his early years. “If my spirit is filled with these demons from the past—and it is—then this violence, this dominant enslavement of other people in order to empower oneself—all this is coming through in my art.”
His family took up residence in London. “Living in England was the thing to do for rich Persians,” he remembers. “It was decadent because there was a lot of money, and they didn’t know what to do with it.” England exposed him to art that spoke to his private fantasies. At age seven, Reza was taken by his governess to Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the experience seared itself into the child’s imagination. The production’s acrobatic choreography, the sudden bursts of wild spectacle, the direct address to the audience—all these qualities characteristic of Abdoh’s work can be traced to that initial exposure.
Young Reza also saw Martha Graham’s productions and exhibitions of Jackson Pollock and Giacometti. “But the biggest impression on me as a kid was religious iconography,” Abdoh says. “I was born to a Catholic and a Muslim, then I grew up going to the Protestant Church of England while all my friends were Jewish. I’d go to a bar mitzvah one day, then the next day to an Islamic wedding, then the next to a Catholic funeral.” (Such an eclectic background also provided Abdoh’s linguistic skills: he speaks French, Farsi and Italian as well as English.)
During a 1972 visit to relatives in Iran, his mother took the nine-year-old Abdoh to the festival of arts in Shiraz-Persepolis, where a relatively unknown American director named Robert Wilson was conducting auditions for an English-speaking child. Abdoh was cast in Wilson’s 168-hour epic KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDenia TERRACE: A Story About A Family and Some People Changing. His role required that he walk in circles reciting a single line: “I went to the supermarket but didn’t get any chocolate.”
“I saw that there is an innate beauty to people just running around and making fools of themselves,” he says of this acting debut. “Intellectually, of course, I had no idea what I was experiencing.” By the age of 13 Abdoh left home, choosing to live with a 22-year-old English writer (“I was seeking maternal fulfillment,” Abdoh says of her). He worked with England’s National Youth Theatre, cleaning bathrooms, building sets and acting. By the time he turned 14, the NYT had given him his first directing opportunity with Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Next he directed an Ezra Pound translation of a Japanese Noh play, employing an Irish folklore style. (“I needed the next to relate to the people I was doing it for,” says Abdoh of his decision to make it a Yeatsian drama. “I can’t create in a vacuum. The context of plays is very important.”)
At 15, Abdoh struck out on his own, working mainly with an ensemble of street artists. He traveled to India to study kathakali dance, then organized a touring show of ethnic choreography called Vazz Pazz. He was invited to share his dance-theatre work at the Edinburgh Festival and at Nancy, France, where Giorgio Strehler’s work became a major influence.
Then Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gained control of Iran, and Abdoh’s father was suddenly condemned for being a friend of the Shah. Forced to flee, Ali Muhammed chose Los Angeles as his city of exile. Shortly after moving to Southern California, he suffered a heart attack, and Abdoh tried one last time to connect with his father.
But, after discovering that the Islamic fundamentalist government had seized all his assets, Ali Muhammed turned his bitterness on his son. “He was violently against me being an artist of any sort,” Abdoh says. “But at the end, I started appreciating him for what he was rather than reacting to my image of him. We never really crossed that bridge and connected. He had lost his spirit. There was not a whole lot for him to live for.” His father suffered another heart attack and died at the Los Angeles Athletic Club on a squash court.
In Abdoh’s loft in Venice, Calif., there is a faded Life magazine containing a photo essay on his Hemingwayish father. Abdoh Senior stands alone on one side of a volleyball net, muscular, confident, the portrait of rugged individualism. Solo, he had competed against an entire team—and won! Life found this feat heroic. Muhammed had also been a champion boxer, and to this day the poetic, opera-loving Abdoh speaks reverently about that bloody, brutal sport. Also prominent in his loft is a collage depicting Rocky Marciano’s devastating one-punch knockout of Jersey Joe Walcott. “It is so beautiful,” he will tell you in an awe-hushed whisper.
Rather than return to London, Abdoh remained in Los Angeles. He was fascinated by the mix of Asian, Latin and Western cultures, by what he viewed as the region’s “future possibilities.” The city reminded him of Tehran, where “you don’t really see what’s going on until you’re behind closed doors.” A super-8 film that Abdoh says was “just awful” earned him a scholarship to the University of Southern California film department, but Hollywood networking was not Abdoh’s style. At a tiny coffeehouse theatre in Hollywood, Abdoh made his American stage debut by directing three one-acts by Howard Brenton.
Then in 1984, he took on Shakespeare by mounting King Lear in a 36-seat space. He auditioned more than 400 actors before double-casting the tragedy. When LATC consulting director Alan Mandell heard that the 19-year-old Abdoh (who had been Mandell’s assistant director on a program of Beckett’s one-acts) was directing King Lear, he felt compelled to witness this phenomenon. What he saw was a wildly gymnastic interpretation, with an uneven cast of students and non-professionals struggling valiantly to recreate visions Abdoh had seen in European productions by Strehler, Mnouchkine and Bausch. “The fact that someone this young truly understood Lear was astonishing,” Mandell says today. “It was clearly a talent that had to be supported. This was someone to watch and encourage, someone who was obviously going to become a major force.”
The expert advice and artistic eye of Mandell—actor, director and closed friend of Samuel Beckett, and a major influence on the theatre life of Los Angeles—have been instrumental in the careers of such playwrights as Jon Robin Baitz, Paul Hidalgo-Durand and John Steppling, but no artist benefited more from Mandell’s support than Abdoh. Mandell insisted that LATC’s staff witness the oddly eclectic Lear, inspiring a seven-year working relationship with producer Diane White, artistic director Bill Bushnell, dramaturg Adam Leipzig, designer Timian Alsaker and composer Fred Myrow, among others. In 1986, White and Mandell helped secure Abdoh’s professional Los Angeles stage-directing debut, a pair of one-acts by David Henry Hwang at LATC. Although the production was greeted with critical scorn, Abdoh’s talent was undeniable. Soon Marta Holen, a longtime board member of the defunct Los Angeles Ballet, became another mentor and Abdoh’s producer.
“I loved his use of movement and his visual look and how cultures mesh in his pieces,” Holen remembers. Her support freed Abdoh from fundraising responsibilities. It also allowed him to pursue his visions without compromise. After the Hwang one-acts, Holen produced Abdoh’s A Medea: Requiem for a Boy With a White White Toy in a Hollywood basketball gym. Abdoh adapted the Euripides tragedy, designed and directed, and even sold the tickets. He covered the basketball court with red leaves, christened the space “L. A. Experimentalltheatr,” then conducted his company of actors like humans chess pieces. A “Dear Abby” letter was read aloud; Getrude Stein rhymes and Shakespeare lines were juggled between songs, chants, musical interludes; Jason and Medea played cards while their children were represented by two eggs.
Although Abdoh was the first to admit the experiment didn’t coalesce, he explained at the time, “I’m trying to see what a piece needs. I must take things to extremes in order to see what the synthesis is. I know I make a lot of mistakes, but I have to make them, so that five years from now, ten years from now, twenty years from now, I can create something that a collective consciousness can share.”
Emboldened by a Rockefeller grant, LATC commissioned Abdoh to create an epic about industrial pollution. Afforded the rare luxury of workshopping an Equity production, Abdoh conceived, directed and co-wrote (with Mira-Lani Oglesby) Minamata, a sprawling, intense, enraged dance-theatre montage on the theme of mercury poisoning of Japanese fishermen. Minamata became Abdoh’s breakthrough production.
The attention that resulted—from newly respectful critics, colleagues like Peter Sellars, the film-and-television management company Treat Management, which signed Abdoh as a client—seems ironic, considering how Abdoh works. He has never believed in traditional storytelling theatre with its cause-and-effect relationships. Designer Alsaker describes Abdoh’s work as “paintings,” and their development process as “an artist testing colors.” Other collaborator prefer to use music—especially opera—as a metaphor for Abdoh’s style. His plays are construed of fragments from painting, dance, opera and film; his multi-layered composition technique is influenced by such literary sources as novelist William Burroughs’s cut-up method and the dense, elliptical, fragmented texts of Heiner Muller. “If you stray into a theatre and see on stage exactly what you saw in the subway or the street,” Muller once declared, “why bother to go to the theatre? Stay in the street. Fragments have a special value today because all the coherent stories we used to tell ourselves to make sense of life have collapsed.” Like Muller, Abdoh refuses to separate theatre from politics and history. And both believe that, in Muller’s words, “Art must awaken the yearning for another world, and this yearning is revolutionary. Theatre must not duplicate reality.”
“You can’t pander to people,” explains Tom Fitzpatrick, Abdoh’s favorite actor and a veteran of eight Abdoh productions. “I think Reza believes our culture has made us all so numb with constant media bombardment that ordinary theatre has a soporific quality. I think you have to get right up in people’s face and scream at them, if not vocally, with images. His technique is to assault.”
Abdoh’s personal manifesto is less fierce and more philosophical. He bases his world outlook on the ancient mystic poet Molanah, who he says “truly celebrates the mysteries of life, who writes about the struggle between light and dark forces.
“My plays are dreams.” Abdoh explains. “My dreams are dreams of a better future where we can live in true peace rather than simulated peace. But to get there, there’s a whole process of purging. And that’s why my work is often so dark. There are moments of complete mayhem, unforgiving and relentless violence, passions that are like excrement. It’s not because I’m cynical. It’s a form of purge that needs to occur.”
After Minamata, Abdoh decided to take his visions to Manhattan. His assault on the East Coast came via the adventurous site-specific company En Garde Arts, which invited Abdoh to stage an environmental piece. An abandoned warehouse and a four-block area in the city’s meat-packing district became the setting for Father Was a Peculiar Man, his Off-Off-Broadway interpretation of Dostoevesky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Astonished audiences trailed after the Walter Thompson Marching Band as jazz rhythms led them from slaughterhouse to street corner to a gigantic banquet table occupying a half-block of West 12th Street; while characters pursued one another with chainsaws, a beauty queen (Miss Arizona) stalked up and down the table pursued by video crews, lecturing on toxic waste; inside the crumbling warehouse, shoulder-to-shoulder with some 45 cast members, audiences witnessed a shower scene with naked men kissing, another nude male dangling upside down from a meat hook, and yet another painted green and hanging on a cross as Christ.
“It’s not about bare skin,” Abdoh says of his aesthetic. “It’s about exposing our psyche. We have to celebrate the visceral, celebrate the androgynous, celebrate the Dionysian forces, and not just be trapped in this kind of an Apollonian mayhem, which we are.”
Buoyed by praise from the New York Times (which called Father “exhilarating” and “exuberant”), Abdoh rushed back to Los Angeles to answer Peter Sellars’s invitation to take part in the Los Angeles Festival. Abdoh’s Pasos en la Obscuridad (Footsteps in the Darkness) seemed like a perfect event for the Festival’s theme of multiculturalism. But Abdoh miscalculated. Mounting a more-than-three-hour parody of “telenovelas,” in Spanish, using Latino transvestite entertainers, with only two-and-a-half weeks of rehearsal, proved too much too soon. The result was wildly uneven.
Then came another blow. LATC, in a cancerous financial condition, could not afford to present his next scheduled project, an epic on AIDS titled Bogeyman. Either come up with a less ambitious alternative, he was told, or wait until next year.
Abdoh suffered a personal crisis, careening from the ecstatic success on one coast to a crashing collapse on the other. He had been diagnosed as HIV-positive. There might not be a next year.
Abdoh awoke at 3 a.m. with a line from William Blake echoing in his head: “He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence.” Abdoh visualized an Orwellian society in the 21st century where sex is punished by death. He heard a monstrous vice cop scream at a married couple named Orpheus and Eurydice, “We’re gonna bore desire right out of you!” He had his next project, The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice. With only five characters, he could explore and illuminate America’s flirtation with censorship, a theme that was increasingly haunting his daydreams. In addition, Hip-Hop would be the first play of an ambitious trilogy, followed by Bogeyman and ending with The Law of Remains. LATC enthusiastically agreed to produce all three.
At Montreal’s Festival of the Americas in June, Hip-Hop was praised as “jarring unexpected, inspired,” and Abdoh’s emerging international status led to the creation of his own permanent company, Dar A Luz. The literal translation from Spanish means “to give light,” but Abdoh chose it because Ecuadorean women also use the phrase as a synonym for birth. Dar A Luz soon had an office on New York’s Upper East Side and an enormous midtown rehearsal loft, donated by a New York board member, plus a Hollywood movie executive, Adam Leipzig, senior vice president for production at Touchstone/Disney Pictures, on its board.
“One of the most inspiring aspects of Reza’s work,’ says Leipzig of his reasons for serving on Abdoh’s theatrical board, “is the way he is able to blend cultures and traditions simultaneously on the stage, drawing from ancient Eastern and African rituals and completely contemporary facets of our culture.”
But when the time finally came for Bogeyman, Abdoh’s artistic home was in turmoil. By last summer, LATC’s financial crisis loomed ominously. Staff members argued against doing Bogeyman because it required a dozen Equity performers as well as one of the most expensive sets in LATC’s history. But producer White echoed Abdoh when she countered: “If not now, when? How can we not do this work?” Bushnell defiantly announced: “If this company is going to close, then it’s going to close swinging. It’s not going to close whimpering in a corner doing a two-character play.”
In the midst of imminent collapse, the staff’s dedication to Abdoh’s visions required heroic struggles. White paid for props out of her personal bank accounts. Rehearsals were interrupted by last-ditch press conference during which LATC’s personnel pleaded in the lobby for funding. Even the indefatigable Abdoh suffered despair. “I have never, ever been so depressed,” he said during rehearsals of Bogeyman.
LATC was a family that nurtured this prodigal son. It was a family that didn’t hesitate to cast tattooed, pierced dancers Abdoh had found at an L.A. afterhours haunt called Club Fuck. It was a family that didn’t hesitate to encourage his furious indictment of “venal love.” It was a family that gave him whatever he wanted, even if it meant condemning society’s avoidance of the AIDS epidemic, even while fearful that staging simulated homosexual acts might provoke conservative politicians into cutting funds. It was a family believing, as Bushnell said, that Abdoh was “a theatrical Picasso.”
Bogeyman erupted in the midst of the fiscal debacle like a heroic last stand. The shadow of death hung over the theatre and over Abdoh himself; decay oozed from the savage ceremony on stage. It became the talk of the town and would still be running if LATC had not been forced to darken its stages.
His home gone, Abdoh began to contemplate relocating to New York. Before he could make a permanent transplant, he wrote and directed a low-budget movie, The Blind Owl, for producer and video artist Adam Soch, casting many of the Bogeyman misfits. Then, in advance of a spring commitment to direct for the Long Beach Opera, he could fly to his East Coast base for The Law of Remains.
According to Abdoh’s synopsis, The Law of Remains, on one level, “traces the seven stages of a journey that the soul embarks on the in Egyptian Book of the Dead. On the second level it explores emotional, spiritual and physical cannibalism. On the third level it is a love story between an assassin and a holy man, a car salesman and a hustler, a junkie and a sailor against a decaying background. The text will be in English, Spanish and Arabic.”
How will a frigid New York, besieged by debt and oppressed by recession, greet such a private spiritual expression? There are those who believe Abdoh is over-extended and increasingly surrounded by sycophants; more and more you hear his young followers refer to Abdoh as a “genius.” He’s less and less open to outside advice, increasingly meditating with his private muse. Dangers of a guru or cult mentality shadow this Persian mystic.
Yet Abdoh won’t compromise his vision. He’s determined to make art for a society where even the word “artist” is suspect. In an era when theatre is manipulated by media and marketing concerns, when playwrights are taught how to write characters out of their plays, when artistic directors calculate how to hold on to shrinking subscription audiences, Abdoh courageously picks up the avant-garde banner last held by Artaud, Cocteau, Grotowski and the Becks. He waves that flag with a ferocity our geriatric theatre so desperately needs if it, too, is to survive. We dismiss his visions at our peril.
Richard Stayton is a theatre critic based in Los Angeles.
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