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Performance review: 'AH!' at REDCAT

September 17, 2009 |  1:00 pm

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Expect a traditional musical experience going in, and your reaction to "AH!" will most likely be a big "Huh?"

An open mind is absolutely essential to appreciating this multimedia new-music project playing at REDCAT, but it won't necessarily guarantee comprehension. Written by David Rosenboom and Martine Bellen, "AH!" uses the ancient Buddhist text known as "The Diamond Sutra" as a springboard from which to dive into an ocean of poetic free association and grab-bag musical experimentation.

"AH!" is as frustrating as it is fascinating, a sui generis experience that refuses to cohere in a linear way. Its isolated moments of musical beauty and theatrical innovation help compensate for the production's great swaths of tiresome navel gazing.

Director Travis Preston has arranged REDCAT's theater into an open-space sanctum, where viewers sit along the edges of the room while the performers occupy the center. Call it monastery chic -- audiences are asked to enter barefoot, and many of the musicians sit on the floor. Organized into roughly 13 chapters, the performance unfolds as a series of loosely connected spoken-word arias accompanied by acoustic grunts and groans.

The musical instruments used in "AH!" range from the traditional (violin, cello, piano) to the ethnographic (the Korean haegeum, indigenous Mayan implements). Sonically, the piece mixes every conceivable style of music into its avant-garde blender. The result is a sometimes lumpy but seldom boring fusion of sounds.

"AH!" also features several digital components. Videographers capture the entire performance and project it onto the theater's white floors, creating a fascinating double-exposure effect. The piece's website features interactive applications, plus the ability to watch a live-stream of the performance.

At times, it's difficult to say exactly what the creative team behind "AH!" is trying to achieve, aside from experimentation for the sake of experimentation. "AH!" frequently succumbs to the worst impulses of avant-garde performance art. The spoken poetry, performed by two narrators, is often impenetrable and laughably egotistical. Featuring the music of 11 composers, the piece is a crowd-sourced mess that wears its chaos proudly on its hipster thrift-store sleeve.

The production offers lightning flashes of creative brilliance. A violin solo near the end (played by Michael-Thomas Foumai) is a virtuoso passage pulled off with technical mastery and grace. Equally magnetic is the choreography by Mira Kingsley, who has a solo dancer weave trance-like in between the musicians.

Billed strangely as an "interactive opera no-opera," "AH!" takes its multi-disciplinary, high-tech birthright to extreme ends. The aggressive multitasking between musical genres threatens to overload the Firewire cable to the show's MacBook heart.

As mystifying as it is on first encounter, the piece benefits from personal reflection. Let "AH!" linger in your mind for a few hours and your "Huh?" will turn into a "Hmm" and maybe even into an "A-ha!"

-- David Ng

REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 631 W. 2nd St., L.A. 8:30 p.m. today and Friday. Ends Friday. $25. (213) 237-2800 or www.redcat.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Photo: Musicians at REDCAT perform "AH!" Credit: REDCAT

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