PROCESS THEATER, BEFORE...AND AFTER

The great composer, adds Sorensen, "is a symbol of music and creativity." All the contradictions in Beethoven's life--how he could make magnificent music and still be such a jerk to people around him, for example--fascinated Dobrusky and Sorensen and triggered the conception of the piece.

"He is interesting to me because he created interesting things," says Dobrusky. "There was something coming out of him that was important. It was Wagner, I think, who compared him to Tiresias [the prophet in Oedipus Rex], who was blind but who saw the past, present and future. Others compare Beethoven to Prometheus [who disobeyed the gods and brought fire to mankind]."

Dobrusky points out that Beethoven broke then-dominant musical rules with regard to rhythm and also by introducing Friederich von Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy" into a symphony. Those sorts of discoveries have influenced every generation since. Today, says Dobrusky, we live in such a fragmented culture that "we don't have ideals--we don't even have many people who really honestly create." So a piece about Beethoven can speak to contemporary audiences--and to contemporary issues. "Nobody knows much about Beethoven," says Powell. "But we all know Beethoven. He's almost too big to play."

There are disturbing images in the show--not surprising, given that one of Dobrusky and Sorensen's key goals was to download images from the mind of a tortured genius. As a matter of fact, the whole play takes place in Beethoven's mind, rendering the ubiquitous question of how to deal with his deafness moot (unlike in the recent movie Immortal Beloved). Still, the isolation caused by his deafness does play a part. Powell points out that Beethoven's obsession with how God manifests himself in nature is the central motif of the play. The composer, he notes, "left the world more and more walking the eternal."

And despite their reputation for shock theater, Dobrusky and Sorensen say they mean to speak to the heart. The process form, they believe, is a natural articulation of what their thirtysomething generation sees, feels, understands and creates. While there is violence in their work, notes Sorensen, "we can never be as commercial as David Lynch or [Martin] Scor-sese. When we do it, we're not doing it for entertainment. If it's in there, it's in there for a reason."

Adds Dobrusky: "Be honest with yourself. I am not a psychiatrist planting false images about being molested by your father. If I touch something, it's there."

Beethoven lies near death on top of his piano. He raises a single finger in the air, turns painfully over on his side and strikes a key. The set explodes in sparks, his Ninth Symphony blasts out, making the audience jump, a score of small trap doors open, and wildly dressed dancers and actors emerge like magic. Beethoven 'N' Pierrot is off and running.

During one of the first performances last week, some viewers got up and left in the middle of the show. Some sat fuming. But most of the others appeared to be intrigued, stimulated, even delighted.

This two-hour, free-form investigation of Beethoven's creative genius by directors Pavel Dobrusky and Per-Olav Sorensen is dazzling and self-indulgent by turns. And it's definitely unsettling, because there are none of the comforting signposts of traditional theater to guide you through the piece: There's no plot, the characters all spring from the mind of one man and are therefore two-dimensional (all, that is, but Beethoven himself and an ingenious devil), and the dialogue sounds like it was plucked from contemporary America, not nineteenth-century Austria. You're set adrift, and whatever weird flotsam and jetsam you crash into hits hard.

There's also enough weirdness here--from the wild costumes to the stream-of-consciousness cataclysms--to take your breath away. Beethoven's ego is already out of bounds as the show opens; when the devil, Mephisto, enters disguised as a psychiatrist and asks to play a free-association game with words like "nature," "God" and "great," Beethoven answers "me." Mephisto (played with great finesse and infernal wit by Mark Boyett) returns in various guises throughout. Dressed in a shower cap and bathing suit and made up like a ten-dollar tart, he unsuccessfully tries to seduce the Maestro into his realm. He appears again as the composite doll-woman Beethoven thinks he loves, only to be unmasked again. He even appears as Beethoven's mentor, the Empress, and this time the composer does fall briefly for the devil. Mephisto, though, becomes increasingly comic and increasingly ludicrous. In the end, he is no longer awesome, just mediocre--not a power to be feared but an annoyance to be resisted.

As the action unfolds, Beethoven encounters the women he has loved, his dying mother, his pathetic little nephew (played by a marionette) who cries continually for his mama, and even his erstwhile hero Napoleon--an irritating little mosquito who arrives on a tank and demands that the audience clap along ("or I'll kill you") to a self-adulating rap song.

One of the most magnetic forces of the whole evening lies in the character of Pierrot (played with almost inhuman grace by Bill Bowers). The father of mime, Pierrot (whose real name was Jean-Baptiste Gaspard Deburau) was a contemporary of Beethoven's. In perhaps the most inspired moment of the evening, he dances with a lame countess, making her "fly" in his arms like a bird. Madness precedes it and madness follows, but that one moment is a point of exquisite light, undergirded by the magnificent strains of Beethoven's music. In fact, apart from a few routines intended as parody, dance is a symbol of clarity and divine benevolence throughout the show.

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