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Polygraph Lounge harmonizes eras of music

Polygraph Lounge is like a lot of things. Rob Schwimmer and Mark Stewart, the two merry minstrels of the ensemble, cite Victor Borge, Tom Lehrer, Firesign Theatre, and the immortally anarchic '40s bandleader Spike Jones among their influences. They might as well have added Johann Sebastian Bach, who put two popular songs into counterpoint and entered them into his ''Goldberg" Variations.

But nothing today is much like Polygraph Lounge, and nothing like Polygraph Lounge would have been possible earlier, because its work depends on more than 250 years of music since Bach's day, and on modern electronics -- not only electronic instruments, but the electronic world that all of us inhabit, in which the music of the world can fill the air at a touch of a button, and everything we have heard can be simultaneously present in our memory and imagination.

Schwimmer plays keyboards and theremin, the wailing progenitor of all modern electronic instruments; Stewart plays electric and acoustic guitars. Both have big hair and favor polyester Hawaiian shirts -- Stewart's shirts had wood-paneled station wagons. Both sing, and sing well, and both play other instruments, like the Stylophone (a Mattel toy of the 1970s), or instruments of their own devising (like a trio of slide whistles, played by a single blower, or the Daxophon, fashioned from plastic household plumbing).

Their show lasts two nonstop, high-energy hours, and there's no way to know what's going to happen next. Like Borge, for example, they tour with a soprano. Melissa Fathman sings a duet for soprano and mezzo from Delibes's opera ''Lakme" made famous by a television commercial; because there is no mezzo, she sings in close harmony with Schwimmer's theremin. She offers ''Goldfinger," with moves even Shirley Bassey never thought of, and after the slide whistles have approximated the ''Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy" from Tchaikovsky's ''Nutcracker," Fathman bursts into the ''Waltz of the Flowers," with double-entendre lyrics a lot gamier than the ones Fred Waring brought to the airwaves back in the days of network radio, accompanying herself on the Vietnamese DanMo.

To ''Fever," popularized by Peggy Lee, Schwimmer and Stewart sing Lehrer-style lyrics about ''Dubya." A country-and-western number celebrates the SUV (''Don't emasculate me with a station wagon," it begins). A sequence about Moby Dick includes parodies of ''Memories" from ''Cats" and Barbra Streisand's hit ''People" (''Mammals . . . mammals who eat mammals"). The voice of Alvin the Chipmunk is heard, along with that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and there are jokes about everyone from John Cage to ''Ornette Funicello." The range of musical references is staggering, and -- who knew that Oscar Rasbach's setting of Joyce Kilmer's ''Trees" would show up among the rude noises, along with Khachaturian's ''Sabre Dance," the finale of Stravinsky's ''Firebird," the familiar car alarm melodies, and a reprise of the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans signoff song, ''Happy Trails."

In a way, Polygraph Lounge's show is frustrating, because no single listener is going to catch every musical reference as it whizzes by; listening is a little like trying to play trivia games with the thousand-year-old man.

But there is nothing trivial about Polygraph Lounge's pursuit, amusing as it is. The political commentary is alert and the musical humor intelligent; what appears anarchic is in fact the product of well-stocked brains, strict performance discipline, and killer chops. The juxtapositions of tone are startling, as is the ricochet between high art and popular culture, but they tell us something about the world we live in and how our minds deal with it.

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