Welcome to their ‘Nightmares’

Photo by Nick Kostner  You plagiarist. You little liar: Adam R. Burnett and Jud Knudsen, from the original January 2013 staging of “Nightmares.”

Photo by Nick Kostner
You plagiarist. You little liar: Adam R. Burnett and Jud Knudsen, from the original January 2013 staging of “Nightmares.”

Buran Theatre’s immersive style is sublime

BY MARTIN DENTON  | The first Buran Theatre production I saw was “The House of Fitzcarraldo,” which had a brief but memorable run at the Brick in early 2012. We went to the opening night performance, which was sparsely attended because at that point few New Yorkers knew about Buran and their special brand of immersive theater. The first to enter the space, we made our way for the front row, where we always like to sit (because we’re short, and we don’t like to have anyone tall in front of us). But the stage was cluttered with props and — well, stuff — of all kinds and shapes and sizes, starting with a heavy length of rope laid out across the edge. Behind it, blithely tuning up, sat a man with a guitar. Not wanting to mess with their set, I asked the musician, “Is it okay for us to sit in the front row?” And not missing a beat, he replied “It’s fine, but you might get splashed with beer.”

And in a way, that’s all you need to know about the Buran aesthetic. It is fine, and you might get splashed with beer. But you’re going to be in for a whirlwind of a night that’s going to engage all your senses, including the ones that are too rarely engaged in the theater these days — the ones that make you do the deepest, heartiest thinking; the ones that make a Buran work linger in your consciousness for days and weeks after you see it.

New Yorkers are getting another chance to catch the current Buran opus in October, again at the Brick, for a too-short run of just four days. This one has the marvelous title “Nightmares: A Demonstration of the Sublime.” It premiered at the Brick right after New Year’s, to considerable acclaim — not just from me, but from a number of other observers, including Mitch Montgomery (then writing for Back Stage), who astutely identified “Nightmares” as “overwhelming” and “an expressionist critical mass…vehemently defying categorization.”

Even if you saw it then, you will still want to see it now, because it’s changed a whole bunch since January. The Buran aesthetic is all about process, you see: the joy — the point — of creation for these artists is…creation. So rather than be satisfied with some excellent notices and sold-out houses, Buran followed up the New York run of “Nightmares” with a national tour during which they completely took apart the show, re-cast and re-mounted it three different times in three different cities, and then put it all back together for a new (but I won’t say final) version — the one we’ll be seeing this month.

Buran’s co-founder and artistic director Adam R. Burnett explains:

“The House of Fitzcarraldo” had five runs in different cities and the performance changed every night. I was cutting and rearranging in the MIDST of the performance. I’d come off stage and tell everyone, ‘Cut the next scene, move scene nine to scene four’ and such and such. We didn’t have a final running order until the last few performances of our run in Brooklyn at The Brick. Now that the show is set in this way, I’m finished. I have no interest in ever revisiting. And as far I’m concerned, until I find some reason to alter it beyond recognition, it won’t be performed again.”

Of course, and happily, that last part is not necessarily true — Adam has told me more than once that there may be more “Fitzcarraldo” performances in the future. I hope so.

So, gosh, here we are halfway through the article and I haven’t really told you a thing about the play itself. “Nightmares” is an investigation of appropriation and art. It wonders how, in an age when precise reproduction of a painting or a piece of music can be accomplished cheaply and immediately thanks to modern technology, anything original and beautiful can be made. It does this through a story (if “story” is really the word: Buran’s work is postdramatic in every sense, always about what’s happening in the room rather than the travails of made-up characters) of a young man, played by Burnett, who has acquired some modest fame as a blogger, and his friend (played by Jud Knudsen, co-founder of Buran and the other pivotal creator of this piece; he and Burnett are the ones who toured all summer with it and saw it through its transformations), who thinks just maybe that the blogs were plagiarized.

So much goes on in a Buran show! Here’s some of what I wrote about it earlier this year:

“The show contains funny scenes and startling surprises; there are wondrously animated projections of some of the paintings discussed by these characters and a truly mind-blowing animated short film (for want of a better way to describe it) that I thought was based on sonogram-esque views of the human circulatory system but my companion thought was about the game of “Telephone” that is Twitter, filled with almost-accurate, not-quite-synchronized repetitions of themes….The text dazzles as it considers our imprecision and our faulty memories: how we muddle and mix up words and attributions, and what that does to clear thinking. The direction, by Burnett, Theresa Buchheister and Knudsen, manages the illusion of anarchy without feeling out of control. Nick Kostner’s set is unexpectedly lovely.”

I concluded by encouraging any thoughtful student of contemporary American theater to experience this work. Whatever’s been changed in “Nightmares: as it wended its way to Kansas, New Mexico and California last summer, that will undoubtedly still be true. “The biggest discovery was how LARGE and truly OVERWHELMING we could make it,” Adam told me. I hope lots of adventurous theatergoers will be excited to discover just that this month at the Brick.

There’s lots of information about Buran and “Nightmares” on Indie Theater Now at indietheaternow.com/Company/buran-theatre — including my podcast conversation with Adam and Jud about the tour.

Martin Denton has been covering the NYC theater scene for nearly two decades. His current project is Indie Theater Now. Launched in 2011, it’s a digital theater library where people can discover plays from the contemporary indie theater scene.

A Buran Theatre production
Oct. 17-20, at 8pm & Oct. 20 at 3pm
At The Brick
575 Metropolitan Avenue (btw. Union Ave. & Lorimer St.)
Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Subway: L to Lorimer, G to Metropolitan
For tickets ($18): bricktheater.com or 212-352-3101

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