Right up front, written in the program, composer/creator John King proposes a half-dozen different scenarios for his electronic opera, "La Belle Captive" (you get to decide on the most likely candidate). Then he quotes Alain Robbe-Grillet. If this doesn't provoke in you feelings of placid certainty, you're not alone. But what follows is hypnotic, intellectually substantial, and slightly chilling - if never quite comprehensible.
Mr. King's multimedia cornucopia, with video and sound mixed live, delights in proposing a dozen narrative nodes that collide and compete with each other. Using bits of Robbe-Grillet's writing, he spins a sort of multidimensional, postmodern mystery story, in which young women are abducted, tarot cards are examined, and foreign objects suddenly appear in static paintings. It's a bit like having a dream after hearing a fragment of Paul Auster broadcast on a broken television set.
A young woman (Analia Couceyro) can just be seen through a portal of scrim, on which is projected yellow and orange static, images of a city, and a giant eye. Her voice, lightly accented, describes for us an unseen picture in staggering detail. The painting, which occasionally resembles what we see through the screen, is of a cell with women trapped inside.
As the voice of our narrator weaves its way in and out of Spanish and through various identities, we worry she herself might be some sort of inmate. Another woman (Carla Filipcic Holm), dressed in a toga, sings fragments of songs in Spanish, and provides the lonely woman with an imaginary friend.
Describing the production has the unfortunate result of making it all sound like chaos. But Mr. King, video designer Benton-C Bainbridge, and set designer Minou Maguna have created a well-delineated world that churns up the same disturbing images again and again. Only a few chosen items make up this strange little universe, and the piece obsesses over them until our minds are forced to order them into sense.
Not every one of the images emerges with the same artistry - there's a tarot card I would have been glad never to see again - but the spell of the piece never breaks. It's a sturdy sort of magic that Mr. King creates, and it's a pleasure to succumb to it.
Taking the whole "ripped from the headlines" thing a little belatedly, Bonnie Culver's play "Sniper" gets its New York debut at Center Stage. Almost 30 years ago, a high school student in Olean, NY, stood in a school window and started firing into the street below. Ms. Culver reimagines the story of the young killer.
Anthony Vaccaro (a cherubic John O'Brien) recounts his shooting spree in a robotic monotone. When asked about his dying victims, he can only reply, "They looked like roses." Ms. Culver then dials the clock back, and we see scenes from the previous decade of young Anthony's life.
The problems that crop up aren't so unusual for the 1970s. We hear that his brother fought and died in Vietnam, and we see Anthony's fervent belief in the Church undermined by Vatican II's revisions. He seems a fragile, intense boy, overwhelmed by impressions of hypocrisy, but he never seems like a psychopath until it's all too late.
Ms. Culver's conventional representations of Anthony's increasingly distant family and friends don't add up to a believable portrait. Mr. O'Brien is left to shout at other characters and at himself, showing a blunt lack of development or insight. The piece falls between two stools - Ms. Culver neither employs the rigor of the documentary nor the creative imagination of the playwright. Dialogue between characters has a leaden, pedantic tread, and despite her horrifying subject matter, the play unfolds without a hint of adrenaline.
This is off-off Broadway at its offest - so set and acting values are pretty haphazard. Director Adam Hill either fails to rein in, or has actively encouraged, some unfortunate hamminess; in all three of his supporting roles, Erik Kever Ryle insists on tearing up over the most unlikely of lines.
Others of the ensemble do bring assurance to their roles, particularly Tony Neil as the refreshingly well-behaved Father Keenan and Sterling Coyne as a bluff Chief Rollins. When portraying a small town, the company does all right. But that's different than a trenchant analysis of tragedy and death.
"Sniper" until February 12 (48 W. 21st Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, 212-352-3101).