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Jim Strahs peers into the Magic Eight Ball in his hand, waiting for the words to appear. After a moment, he acknowledges the toy’s pseudo-prophetic powers by announcing, "The answer is ’Yes,’ by the way."

But what was the question?

The image of a message bubbling up from the dark is an apt one for encompassing Strahs and his dramaturgy. His is a theater where "contemporary is the absolute" and a play’s seemingly random collection of words mean exactly what they say, but what they say has little meaning.

Seated next to collaborator Michael Stumm, Strahs seemed comfortable being interviewed on the set of his show "How to Act," housed in the spare backroom of Chicago’s Lunar Cabaret last month. On Aug. 11, Stumm and Strahs will bring their one-act show to Combustive Arts, a 7-month-old theater in Williamsburg.

The set consists of several large photographic cutouts and a seemingly random jumble of hand props: a fake mustache, a key, a pistol and other theatrical flotsam. Like everything else about the show, these items seemed both appropriate and incongruous at the same time. It is a fine line to walk, but it’s one that Strahs and Stumm have trod a long time.

With a professional association that stretches back to the Wooster Group’s 1983 production of "North Atlantic," Strahs and Stumm are in sync with each other’s performance aesthetic. Their collaboration on "How to Act" is a good example. For the most part, the play is an acting class that the audience has paid to attend. Stumm plays Barry, an eccentric acting teacher whose lengthy diatribe to his students includes pep talks, hygiene advice, an overview of 2,000 years of theater history and an odd assortment of ukulele tunes.

Marissa McKown, who plays the near-silent role of "stage manager," is present on stage for the whole show and sings backing vocals and plays second ukulele on several of the songs.

The melancholy songs were added by Stumm, who was given free reign over the text by the playwright. The character in performance is really an amalgam of its two creators: the words of Strahs and the presence of Stumm.

"He’s certain facets of me and he’s certain facets of Jim," explained Stumm. "He’s very real. He’s a guy who is offering us salvation. He simply, a) doesn’t know what it is, and b) needs to pay the rent and c) he’s willing to work out his notion of salvation in public."

Barry the moralist describes what to embrace as well as avoid in the world, and his examples range from the anecdotal to shoving his fingers up his nose and threatening to blow up his head. The audience walks away from this bizarre and often amusing production with a great deal of information and very little knowledge of acting techniques.

For Stumm that is the point, or as much of a point as there can be, to the show.

"What all acting classes should address is how do you act like a human being," said Stumm. "How much does being a human being have to do with what you are on stage? For most actors, very f-- little."

"Barry is using words to emphasize the body, and more often than not in its most embarrassing form," said Strahs, sitting next to one of the life-sized photos of naked men that serve as the show’s backdrop. "If you are going to be concerned with the body, it’s got to be the whole body Barry wants to say, ’Your ass--. Where is it?’"

Stumm, along with director Stefan Brun, picked up on the emphasis on the corporal during rehearsals. He described his process as one of "coding" and of creating a gestural language to layer on the unencumbered words.

"My apprenticeship was served at the Wooster Group," said Stumm. "As a group, we didn’t care too terribly much for stage directions. The notion being, that your own are always more fun. Imagine the joy of getting a chunk of text that is completely, let’s call it, attitude free."

The combination of words and gesture provides much of the humor in "How to Act"; Barry’s grandiloquent speechifying coupled with a finger wag or arm sweep. He is preening, and is not let in on the joke. But Strahs insisted that he’s not a parody.

"Barry’s saying, ’Come on, people, get this. Go with me here. I’m trying to teach you.’ And the laughter is a confirmation that he’s not getting his point across."

The title of the show is misleading. "How to Act" teaches little by way of Stanislavsky or Adler. But it does remain a play about giving and receiving knowledge, albeit in a fractured form. Stumm summed up the production by saying, "There’s almost so much information it’s impossible to get to. Barry gets to almost none of it."

Strahs added, "And that may be the absolute truth about information."

"Information is completely useless," continued Stumm. "Or it doesn’t exist. Information is possible to get to, but think of what you have to wade through to get it - television, street signage, the computer. It’s like "

"Tower of Babel," said Strahs, cutting him off. He illustrated his point by picking up a round toy from the set. "Strange plastic balls popping up. But they’re really contemporary. Because that little piece, that little triangle of plastic is really floating up in a different position every time. It’s doing it now."

"How to Act" can be a hard play to pin down or even categorize. Its own message jumps from the practical to the metaphysical, from word to action. Is this a play that examines the craft of acting? A performance piece that exemplifies a distrust of language? An indoor tent show by a modern-day huckster?

Outlook Unclear. Try Again Later.


Combustive Motor Corporation and Wholesale/Chicago present "How to Act" at Combustive Arts [250 Varet St. between Bogart and White streets] at 8 pm on Aug. 11, Aug. 15-18, Aug. 21, Aug. 23, Aug. 28 and Aug. 30-Sept. 1. Tickets are $10. For more information, call (718) 390-8825.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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