Leaving a performance of "AREA" in Torn Space Theater is a lot like waking up after a fitful nightmare. You know you've just been through a vaguely terrifying experience, but the second you try to grasp at the memory of it, the essence of it slips into the ether of your subconscious.
The evasive, dreamlike quality of the performance piece, written by Torn Space co-founder Dan Shanahan and mounted in the spooky surroundings of the Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle & Library on Fillmore Avenue, is presumably its goal.
The show starts off, in typical Shanahan fashion, with an expressionless girl walking slowly onto the stage as if she were a mannequin being pulled along by a string. Soon enough, a disembodied voice booms over the speaker system: "Where were you?" it asks. "I wasn't there," the girl responds. And the voice answers back: "You were there, and so was she."
In all its claustrophobic horror, the show is a bit like a Francis Bacon painting brought to life and stretched into a terminally numb tableau. Insofar as there is dialogue, it is repetitive and intentionally nonlinear, or else it is vague and derivative to the point of irrelevance.
Reading the program notes clues the viewer in to the fact that there has been a certain crime, and that in one way or another, the girl onstage is being questioned about that crime. She acts nonchalant about it, even performing quotidian activities like mixing herself a glass of what appears to be orange Tang and later methodically cooking a breakfast of bacon and eggs. For what reason it isn't exactly clear -- pro-vegetarian sentiments? the capacity for violence in all of us? -- a decapitated pig's head appears momentarily on the video screen at the back of the set, and then a physical version of it swings down from the ceiling.
Later, the disembodied voice asks more questions. Girl 1 is joined onstage by another girl, who prompts the first one to delve into memories about the crime itself and into conversations she had had just prior to its commission. Parts of those conversations are extracted from the Raymond Carver short story "Are These Actual Miles?" in which a cash-strapped couple on the verge of bankruptcy tries to sell a convertible.
The haunting nature of the production is augmented by video and sound design from Tim Stegner and Brian Milbrand, incorporating alternately violent and beautiful still photography by Lukia Costello. As the girls have their Carverian conversation, a prerecorded scene of the two engaging in the same conversation is projected onto the screen behind them. A small screen closer to the audience sometimes projects pictures of the plaza at Sheridan Drive and Niagara Falls Boulevard and other times projects an image of Girl 1, to which she herself pays passionate narcissistic homage.
Shanahan and his team are to be commended for creating an engrossing atmospheric piece that succeeds in creating a kind of dreamlike state in audience members' minds. But at 70 minutes, the show tries to sustain its somewhat overwrought, Baconian sense of isolation and terror for a bit too long. This is not theater for the faint of heart nor short of patience, but it certainly has its buried rewards.
2 1/2 stars (out of four)
Presented by Torn Space Theater through Nov. 16 in Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle, 612 Fillmore Ave.
For more information, call 812-5733 or visit www.tornspacetheater.com.