Unfair Arguments with Existence and Routines
A Theatre Under the Influence at the Union Garage,
720-1942. Through Oct 6.

As you enter, gauze-enwrapped actors chant and women in white uniforms are in your face with irritating questions like, "Do you have a mate?"--which is highly annoying when you've barely made the transition from the ugly, perplexing world to the boxlike, black-curtained theater. Much of the stage experiments here require the audience to root around for meanings, and while I wasn't very thrilled about trying to attach significance to a man in an ape mask throwing baby dolls into a garbage disposal in the shape of the Statue of Liberty, some of the evening's work wasn't so bad. Overly cryptic stage action aside, these short pieces by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti combine relevant politics with the writer's masterful eye for deeply imagined absurdist scenarios.

The big problem with these rarely seen pieces, though, is the way Ferlinghetti is all about language at the cost of specifics of time and place. So some of the production lacks focus and stage tension. One absolute exception is "The Alligation," a diamond-sparkly little script about a rich American woman with an unreasonable attachment to a pet alligator named, curiously, "Shooky." James Weideman and Aimee Bruneau handle this scene terrifically, with ambient backing from the rest of the ensemble (who, in Kabuki-like masks, provide sound effects and a general eerie texture). The weirdly tender allegorical piece is about the West's colonization of native lands as well as other forms of human cruelty, and serendipitously presented in this historic month, it makes a lot of sense.

Other pieces aren't as successful, and the evening would have been more succinct if there had been six short plays instead of eight. But Unfair Arguments comes across strong, and if you like nonlinear, experimental theater, don't hesitate. Director Vince Balestri doesn't fight Ferlinghetti's weirdness; he allows it to blossom. STACEY LEVINE

From Buddha to Broadway

At the Paramount Theatre

Both shows are over. Sorry. Don't blame us, we told you to go see them.

Surprisingly, From Buddha to Broadway (a scruffy, highly personal dance piece presented at the Oddfellows Hall) and Contact (a slick Broadway entertainment, heavy on the dance, at the Paramount) have a lot in common. Both use familiar dance vocabularies (ballet, modern, jazz, disco, and swing), depending more on a theatrical context than originality of movement for their impact; both aspire to a mix of humor and pathos. Buddha earns it; Contact does not.

Choreographer/writer Alianna Jaqua's Buddha opens with a dancer posing like a bodybuilder in red light to an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo. From there, it's a wild compilation of short dances, monologues, and video snippets, set to music ranging from Vivaldi to the Reverend Horton Heat. The moves themselves aren't striking, but the pacing and use of costumes, language, and narrative often give them a new resonance. Not everything is exquisite; a satirical jazz dance sequence went on a little too long for my taste, but the dancers in the audience were eating it up. Overall, there was wit and a refreshing willingness to try possibly ridiculous things. And it's really been some time since I've seen anything as funny as an actor finding his inner disco stud by dancing with an enormous cucumber stuffed down his uncomfortably tight pants.

While it's not unusual to discover that a raved-about Broadway show is soulless, it's still surprising just how soulless one can be. Contact is smooth, virtuosic, and utterly lacking in a single moment of genuine surprise or insight into human character--anything beyond the plot twists, which, while you may not have predicted them, are banal the moment they happen. It goes through you like Olestra; a depressing sign of the diminished expectations that rule mainstream Broadway. BRET FETZER

The Danube
Defibrillator Productions at the space above the Northwest Actors Studio,
Third Floor, 931-5629. Through Sept 29.

When I saw this play three days after the attack on the World Trade Center, it seemed eerily to be about America and our attitude toward whomever we are calling our enemy du jour. In the first 10 minutes of The Danube, a heavily accented guy named Mr. Sandor (Joel Israel) asks a naive Yankee tourist, Paul (Judah Stevenson), "And what is new in the U.S.?" He then mentions something about his aviator son and asks, "Have you ever been up in a plane?" This benign acquaintanceship leads to Paul meeting and falling in love with Sandor's daughter Eve (Megan Campbell)--but it ends with a mysterious illness, something (an explosion?) that coats everybody's clothes in gray dust, broken hearts, and the loss of any ability to speak anything but incomprehensible gibberish. Cuban American playwright Maria Irene Fornes' The Danube--about cultural gaps and misunderstandings between America and another country, in this case a kind of mythical Hungary--should be more riveting today than ever.

Unfortunately, Defibrillator's technically sloppy production undermines this brilliantly inventive script. The play is meant to show a kind of devolution from tidy manners and polite behavior into misunderstanding, pain, and mess, but it's technically messy from the get-go. Still, some of the acting is good. Stevenson and Campbell have good comic moments of glassy doll-like stares and faux chipper voices. Spencer Thorson plays a number of small parts well, but Joel Israel plods as Sandor. I hope that by the time you read this, Defibrillator--whose ...among the ruins was one of the best things at this year's Fringe--will be able to make The Danube as sharp. REBECCA BROWN

Support The Stranger

Washington Ensemble Theatre presents amber, a sensory installation set in the disco era
In this 30-minute multimedia experience, lights & sounds guide groups as they explore a series of immersive spaces.