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The former Puritan Iron Foundry, an old, deserted factory at 56 Water St. in DUMBO was recently converted into theater space, with carpeted bleachers for seats and a broken concrete floor for a stage. Blankets and space heaters supply warmth, and the audience literally walks across the stage to get to their seats.

Stepping into the theater to see Here Art Center’s production of its site-specific dance-theater work, "Dead Tech," this reviewer couldn’t figure out why the theater was designed in such an awkward, uncomfortable way. Then I realized the seating was constructed to keep people awake and the placement of the exit was planned to keep them from escaping.

"Dead Tech" is a radical reworking of Henrik Ibsen’s "The Master Builder" by Here executive director Kristin Marting and Celise Kalke, resident dramaturg for Chicago’s Court Theatre.

The original play, written in 1892, deals with the struggles and anguish of Master Builder Solness, a man who is afraid of being supplanted by younger architects, just as he had supplanted the generation of architects that came before him. As a symbolic act, and through the urging of the young Hilda, he attempts to climb to the top of a tower he has built on his new house, despite his fear of heights. Solness makes it to the top, but falls and is killed.

Under the influence of an architectural book called "Dead Tech: A Guide to the Archeology of Tomorrow," by Manfred Hamm, Rolf Steinberg and Robert Jungk, Marting and Kalke have integrated architectural and technological texts into the play and cut the Ibsen text in half. Books cited as instrumental in the creation of "Dead Tech" also include "How Buildings Learn" by Stewart Brand; "Body, Memory and Architecture" by Kent C. Bloomer and Charles W. Moore; and "Home" by Witold Rybczynski.

"These writings contributed to our analysis of home as domestic architecture, tower as institutional architecture and castles in the air as paper architecture," explained Marting. "We also explored theories about how architecture is a reflection of self and how self then extends into the immediate urban and global communities. This expanded into the transitory nature of all ideas, and how quickly they become outmoded."

If you think that’s pretty heavy stuff, wait, there’s more. Marting, who directs the play, uses the gesture-based performance style she has been developing for the past 10 years, inspired by the work of French theater theorist Francois Del Sarte, whose stylized approach to acting was the basis for the development of melodrama as an acting style, and Eastern performance traditions like ancient Indian Kathakali dance and Japanese kabuki plays, which communicate complex ideas through a culturally specific body language. In this hybrid directorial-choreographic form, gestures represent archetypal emotions that signify outward emotion, inner conflict or a personality trait. Much of this gesture-choreography is accompanied by original music (lacking rhythm, theme and melody) by Todd Griffin.

Daphne Gaines and Richard Toth as Hilda and Solness head a cast that one suspects is quite talented. But Marting gives them little chance of displaying that talent through any real acting. Instead they prance and pose, announce and pronounce.

If you haven’t yet gotten the point, Marting et. al. once again drive it home with projections of abstract architecture, a rather large dollhouse that makes a perfect seat for actors to rest on when they’re not performing but does little else, and loads of reminders that we’re in a crude, industrial space - ropes, ladders and bell-shaped bales of something suspended above the stage.

For some people whose hearts start pounding at such words as "experiment­al," "innovative" and "avant-garde," all this will doubtless sound compelling.

But there are others who prefer Ibsen’s original psychological, social and symbolic drama with real people who live, love, laugh and cry in something resembling human fashion. For them, "Dead Tech" will appear to be a soulless, over-intellectualized presentation with pedantic caricatures of people no one really cares about. For these people, I have one suggestion: get "The Master Builder" out of the library and stay home.

 

Here Art Center’s "Dead Tech" plays through Feb. 23, Wednesday through Sunday at 8 pm at 56 Water St. at Main Street. Tickets are $15 on Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and $18 on Fridays and Saturdays. For reservations, call (212) 647-0202. For more information visit www.here.org on the Web.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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