Reality bites

It's a debate that dates back to at least Plato's time. What is reality--that which we can objectively perceive and quantify with our senses, or that which we interpret through our subjective and particular points of view?

Teatro Dallas takes a crack at this timeless conundrum in Tales From the Mist, a play written, designed, and directed by Abraham Oceransky. Oceransky, a Mexico-based playwright and director with a variety of international directing credits (including the Italian National Circus) is an exponent of hybrid theater. In Tales From the Mist he has combined elements of Latino and Japanese drama to create a new form that is partly passionate in the Latino dramatic tradition and partly detached and ritualistic in the style of traditional Japanese theater.

The story is derived from the Japanese tales of Akutagawa and from the landmark Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon. A man, his wife, and the wife's maid are set upon by a thief. The thief kills the man, rapes the woman, and is eventually apprehended by the law. The authorities attempt to learn the details of how the crime unfolded, but each witness or participant views the event differently.

The investigators go so far as to persuade a witch or mystic woman to inhabit the soul of the murdered man to get his account, but this only muddies the waters even more. The audience is left to file through each re-enactment of the crime, to intuit both whose account of the event is being portrayed and which account reflects the "real story," if there is one.

This is just the sort of eerie, enigmatic work Teatro Dallas has assayed in the past with creditable results. The company has staked out some interesting dramatic territory, with an emphasis on the macabre and the morally misty places between illusion and reality. Its plays celebrating the Latino Day of the Dead, most recently The Lady of the Dawn, have become notable events in Dallas' theatrical season.

Tales From the Mist is largely a mood piece, with next to no dialogue during the first 20 minutes or so of its short, 75-minute running time. It relies on stage design, music, and stylized performances to achieve its startlingly visual effects and emotional power.

The stage is bare, the only adornment being long, dangling stalks of paper-máche bamboo that hang from the rafters. A wall composed of sheets of rice paper lets in slanting, yellow light while often discordant, jarring music (credited to the soundtrack from the Jim Jarmusch film Stranger than Paradise) underscores both the action and much of the dialogue.

A solemn procession enters the stage, composed of a nobleman (James Kille), his wife (Linda Coleman), and their servant (Ruthie Austin), who leads a "horse."

The horse--or man-horse, as is actually the case--is strikingly played by Christopher Tracy, decked out in a thong, a bridle, and large wooden clogs that allow him to loom over the other actors. After the murder and rape, perpetrated by Casper the Thief (John Flores), a furious pantomimed chase ensues, and Casper is caught and imprisoned. We then see the crime re-enacted multiple times, from multiple perspectives.

The action has been transferred from Japan to the area surrounding San Antonio during the time of the Alamo. The time and place are not meant to be taken literally, however. This is the early 19th-century Latino Southwest as seen through the eyes of a Japanese dramatist of the previous century. The nobleman wears a huge, almost surreally large sombrero and silk, Japanese knickers. The judges are weird, Hasidic-looking figures with long, fake beards. The thief wears a tattered suit and a boater hat that, when donned, causes him to speak in a white-trash Southern accent, like Strother Martin.

The actors keep up an intense concentration and commitment to the material that commands your attention even during the dialogue-free segments. Linda Coleman, who was compelling in The Lady of the Dawn, turns in a nicely nuanced performance here. Her reactions are from re-enactment to re-enactment subtly different, slyly suggesting changes in attitude without spelling out whose version of the events we are witnessing.

John Flores is equally effective as the smarmy, repugnant thief. It's hard to decide which aspect of his personality is the more repulsive--the insinuating and self-infatuated or the savage and homicidal. There is a suggestion that his redneck-inflected persona is the ugly American raping and pillaging the more cultured and civilized Hispanic landowner, though the point is only fleetingly made in what is not primarily a political play.

The performance that sticks with you, though, is a nonspeaking one. Christopher Tracy, whether tethered or running wild, radiates kinetic energy, power, speed, and sex as the horse. The play of his muscles and his horsey sputter are uncannily equestrian and entirely convincing. The naturalistic power of this performance, and the dramatic force of the play itself, would only be augmented if Tracy were to appear entirely naked.

In the end, the question of reality and perception is unresolved. Each character's story is warped by self-interest or shame, so that no conclusion is possible. Did the noblewoman really attempt to restore her honor, or did she enjoy the rape? Was the thief enticed into his actions? Was the nobleman, in fact, really murdered at all?

Instead of a pat solution, we are treated to the enigmatic sight of the maidservant mastering the feral man-horse, mounting him, and riding off into the sunset, just like a Western. As an ending, it's a bit of a head-scratcher, but who needs answers when the questions are as stimulating, sexy, and cerebral as the ones posed by this fresh and exciting work?

Tales From the Mist runs through June 8 at Teatro Dallas, 2204 Commerce. Call 741-6833.

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P.b. Miller