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Stopped Bridge of Dreams Review – Lighting and Sound America

by David Barbour,

To those of you who think of projections as the cutting edge, I give you John Jeserun, who has been exploring the intersection between live performance and video for three decades. (Among other things, he’s the author of Chang in a Void Moon, a serial for the theatre, which kicked off in 1982 and now consists of 60 episodes and counting.) He’s a fearless, go-for-broke, take-it-or-leave-it artist, one of a community of theatrical iconoclasts who thrived in the ’80s and now seem scarce as hen’s teeth. Undaunted by the many cultural shifts that have unfolded since his early days, he’s still at it, currently with Stopped Bridge of Dreams.

It’s a perverse, mandarin work, sometimes gripping, sometimes infuriating in its refusal to make its intentions clear– but, overall, it’s impossible to dismiss. It’s inspired by the writings of Saikaku Ihara, a 17th-century poet and storyteller, whose “floating world” stories depict pleasure-seeking urban life of the period. The world of Stopped Bridge of Dreams, however, is as up to date as your latest iPhone app. The play is set on an airliner-turned-brothel that circles the globe, stopping only briefly in different locations to swap out customers. Most of our time is spent in the company of Mrs. X, the airborne madam, and Hiroshi, a male prostitute — this bordello serves all tastes — who may or may not be her son. (There’s also the possibility that either Hiroshi or Mrs. X is dead, but that’s another conversation.) The action, such as it is, consists of the characters — including Claire, who is working to raise money to buy a condo, and Eisenhower, a mechanic-turned-sex worker — taking part in gnomic, flat-affect exchanges while existing in perpetual flight. We see the actors live on stage, and also projected, though live video feed, on two large, pivoting screens placed over center stage. (The audience is seated on both sides of a rangy playing area; the screens often give us direct, close-up views of performers who are facing away from us or are placed in odd corners.) Occasionally, there are prerecorded sequences, pulled from a repertory of prepared material; turn up at the right performance and you’ll see Buck Henry, John Kelly, or the downtown muse Mary Schultz on screen. (Alas, I did not.)

If you haven’t had enough, there’s, a virtual archive of material; a press release says Jeserun “considers the website an extension of the live production that charts the geography of the characters’ relationships and histories along with commentary and video clips of performances, thus rendering each performance of Stopped Bridge of Dreams unique to any other performance of the play — before or after.”

How much you will want to partake of all this is hard to say; if you’re looking for drama, walk right on by. But there is something weirdly compelling about the atmosphere created by Jeserun and company. It’s always a thrill to see Black-Eyed Susan, erstwhile leading lady of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and here, fighting a monster case of laryngitis at the performance I attended, she still made Mrs. X into an eerie and commanding figure. (All the actors are miked, so the actress was thoroughly intelligible, even when speaking in a whisper.) Skillfully working within the deadpan parameters of Jeserun’s direction, the young, but clearly gifted, Preston Martin proves to be a match for Mrs. X in all her hauteur. Their bickering, delivered at a stately pace, has a strange theatrical kick all its own. There are also notable contributions from Claire Buckingham as Claire, and Ikechukwu Ufomadu as Eisenhower. All four inhabit the bizarre world of Jeserun’s imagination so fully that you find yourself at home there as well.

In its lack of narrative development and its refusal to raise the emotional temperature by even the tiniest degree, Stopped Bridge of Dreams teeters on the edge of self-parody as it goes on. When Claire’s mother shows, she first sleeps with Eisenhower then berates her daughter for her choice of career. Delving into Claire’s employment history, she demands, “Didn’t you like the job at the NGO?” Cultural brand names are dropped for no discernable reason: one character has memorized the lyrics of The Beatles’ White Album and sets out to recite them, while Hiroshi peruses The Sound and the Fury on his Kindle. This is one of those shows that ends so abruptly, it’s not until the entire cast has trudged onstage that the audience realizes it’s time to applaud.

Not recommended for the casual viewer, Stopped Bridge of Dreams will grab the interest of Jeserun’s followers and anyone interested in the pursuit of theatre as a kind of three-dimensional visual art with words rather than a narrative discipline. It’s not my cup of tea at all — but it’s not a fake and, in its way, it’s an accomplished piece of work.