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A barren multimedia landscape

'Desert' tries to marry theater and film, but fails to make much sense

Jay Scheib has said that most theater is boring, and that he wants to use the language of cinema to reinvigorate this tired old medium. There's nothing wrong with trying something new. But what is wrong, at least in "This Place Is a Desert," is Scheib's basic conception of how to marry theater and film.

"This Place Is a Desert" is the first theater production in the handsome performance space at the new Institute of Contemporary Art, and it's easy to see why the project appealed to the ICA. Scheib has a strong reputation as an avant-garde director who studied under Anne Bogart and Robert Woodruff; he teaches theater and music at MIT, and he's working here with a longtime collaborator, the accomplished media artist Leah Gelpe.

Throw in the stated inspiration for this piece -- the modernist films of Michelangelo Antonioni -- and you've got yourself a natural world premiere for a hip, high-tech, visually oriented institution. There's just one problem. "This Place Is a Desert" is nearly two hours of pretentious, insulting, self-consciously obscure, superficial, name-dropping, multimedia drivel.

I didn't care for it.

The danger in such a statement, of course, is the risk of sounding like a philistine, a benighted member of the old guard who can't see brilliant innovation when it's projected on a giant screen right in front of her face. And of course that's possible. All I know, as someone who loves both theater and film, and who is eagerly open to projects that find fresh ways of making these media speak to each other, is that "This Place Is a Desert" does not work as a play, as a film, as a piece of performance art, or as anything else but an exercise in arty self-indulgence.

When video works in the theater -- and it can, brilliantly, as in one of Gelpe's own recent projects with Woodruff, the American Repertory Theatre's dark and shining "Britannicus" -- it works because it is supporting and amplifying the live action onstage, not competing with it or attempting to supplant it. At the ICA, a giant horizontal screen hangs over Peter Ksander's lab maze of a set, projecting four images at a time from six video cameras stationed among the actors below.

The cameras show us the scenes at different angles from what we can see ourselves; they give us close-ups; they go into back rooms we can't even see. Ah, yes, modern art has taught us that all knowledge is fragmentary, that we can't see everything, that coherence is an illusion and uncertainty the only certainty. Fine.

But then what? Do these images deepen our understanding of the action? Not really. They take over, demanding that we watch but giving us no deeper insight into the miserable creatures onstage. Meanwhile, the actors go through an interminable series of moves -- screaming fights, violent and half-naked fake sex, deathbed seizures, frenzied dancing, eating raw eggs, barking like dogs -- that cry for attention without rewarding it. Does all this add up to a story? Hard to say.

Instead of feeling that there are many layers of meaning to be grasped here, many images and actions that are building together to form a deeper experience than any single one could alone, we find ourselves glancing from screen to stage to screen and then to yet another screen, trying in vain to find something worth watching. There's so much going on, but none of it connects -- either to the rest of it or to us.

Part of the problem is the language, which veers from ad-libbed banality to ludicrously overwritten speechifying. Chernobyl comes up; so does Susan Sontag. Some characters are married to each other; many are having affairs or trying to; large parts of the action may be taking place in a psychiatric ward, or possibly a rich man's harborside mansion. In one endlessly tedious orgy scene, for no discernible reason, everyone speaks Italian.

Oh, right, Antonioni. But name-checking a deservedly renowned filmmaker doesn't mean that you've successfully created a theatrical response to his work, any more than naming a character Bill Faulkner, as Scheib does, connects you to a rich literary tradition. And slapping cinematic images on a screen above the stage doesn't mean you've reinvented the theater.

In this case, it means that you've missed the point of both theater and film. These forms may use different tools, in different proportions, to make meaning; images are the language of film, while language creates the images of theater. But both use their tools -- not just language and image, but action and spectacle, character and story, emotion and thought -- to give an audience an experience that makes sense. No matter how many pictures you throw up there, no matter how many people prance around and scream, if you take away the sense, you have given us nothing we need.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at