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Chopin Theatre/At the Gallery

A nude draped in red lies on a bed upended like a gravestone and recites the last words of Christ. Juliet awakens in her tomb and questions the purpose of her recent adventures. A chorus of white horses mock her notion of love and threaten to assault her, but a lone black horse defends her. Dissatisfied students deconstruct Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers and the convention of suspending disbelief. Two vocalists sing a mournful gospel-tinged rendition of Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain." A beautiful woman called Helen is adored by lovers who offer to assassinate a rapacious emperor for her sake. Two youths perform a dance of love all the more erotic because they touch only once. Overseeing it all is the Director, who argues with the actors over the course the play will take.

In Spanish, the word publico refers not only to the population at large but to a theater audience. Federico Garcia Lorca's symbolist play (doubly enigmatic because a crucial scene has been lost) refers to both senses of the word: The Public is simultaneously about a static, censor-bound theater that the radically inventive Director attempts to remake and about a country mired in despotism ripe for revolution. The wealthy patrons who flee their box seats and huddle like terrified children as they desperately search for the exits and the guerrilla academics who analyze the upheaval ("It's a question of form. A cat could be a frog and a winter moon could . . . be a bundle of firewood") have their counterparts in any revolution. The ending--with the Director sitting amid the shambles of his theater still insisting that the destruction was necessary--might be taken as a statement of triumphant martyrdom or of the futility of nihilism.

Garcia Lorca's double allegory becomes apparent only late in the play, and then it's more a matter of intuition than of statement. The StreetSigns Company, directed by Derek Goldman, have their work cut out for them, holding the attention of a puzzled, disoriented audience for nearly an hour before anything comes at all clear. The images and language are unusual. "I am so much of a man," says one of the dancers, "that I feel a sharp pain in my teeth when somebody breaks a stem."

But the production is interesting to watch. Roger Smart's cartwheel-shaped set, suggesting both a circus and a corrida, Deborah Goldstein's exotic costumes, David O'Donnell's grotesque masks, the facial distortions of the 16-member ensemble, and Lap Chi-Chu's agile lighting all help create a constantly shifting visual and aural spectacle. It seems any one moment might be frozen into a kaleidoscopic picture almost surreal in its meticulous mystery. Memorable performances are given by Peter Carpenter as the nude draped in red, Michael Crafton as the black horse, both of them in the lovers' pas de deux, and Alexandra Billings as the Director. But it is the intricate teamwork of the entire troupe that gives Garcia Lorca's potentially chaotic text order and meaning--or at least the faith to make us stay until these might be found.

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