Art-ic blast

Dispatches from live performance in frigid New York

Worth braving the polar vortex: "Muazzez"

THEATER New York early last week was as cold as Muazzez. True, I've never been to Muazzez, but a reputable source called that asteroid "so cold it is a frozen bull roar," which sounds about right.

"They lied to me about the reality of things here on Muazzez," began said source, a nondescript speaker seated at a bare wood desk. "About the foundations of these, their basis, their fundament, the profound bottom of things."

There's a glass of water on the desk, some loose paper.

"I am an Abandoned Cigar Factory (or ACF)," he goes on to explain, "groaning in the dunes near the settlement of Culpepper."

The unexpected narrator at the bare wood desk sat in a bare white room, with the incongruous name of the Chocolate Factory (in fact, a terrific theater in Long Island City). The play, called Muazzez, originated as a collection of short stories (all set on asteroids) by Mac Wellman, a writer better known as a playwright and a leading light of the American experimental scene (and a prolific one too, despite receiving few productions in the Bay Area).

Performed with a forthright, faintly odd, wholly captivating precision by longtime collaborator Steve Mellor, Muazzez (directed by Wellman) is an intoxicating and deceptively subdued flight of language and weirdness whose cumulative power, over the course of its brisk 40 minutes, is hard to describe and harder to shake off. Its surface meanings can seem strange, obscure, dryly amusing, even piffling — still, there are things shifting down below in some grim molten core. It was a feeling similar to that produced by one of James Tate's poems.

Muazzez set the tone well. Expecting the unexpected became second nature over the course of last week's sampling of shows from PS 122's COIL (which presented Muazzez), as well as from the Public Theater's Under the Radar, and Ben Pryor's American Realness — all together just three (!) of the lively and significant New York festivals that now swirl each January around the annual meeting of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (or "A-PAP," as it's usually pronounced).

Bees are in short supply these days, so better to say the presenting industry's international confab is a kind of honey pot attracting bears in the performing arts world, by which we mean the artists wrapped in faux fur coats and puffy jackets against the bracing, angry wind and plummeting temperatures of last week's "arctic blast" (itself just another signal from the larger natural order of things that humanity is wildly off course — or right on target, I guess, depending on your end goal.)

This context heightened the urgency folded into Muazzez's extraterrestrial transmission. And there were other, comparable transmissions, including one from the future, articulated in the person and voice of TV's Captain Kirk. Co-presented by COIL and the New Ohio Theatre, An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk takes place on a stage inhabited by a central flat screen TV on wheels and two larger screens on either side. Onto the center screen comes the iconic image of TV's starship commander and over-actor par excellence.

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