It's rather ironic that on the first Saturday of July, the same night when the "artists" of downtown Santa Ana exhibited their wearingly self-referential fare, a genuinely imaginative and gleefully creative troupe of theater artists—the Rogue Artists Ensemble—unveiled its latest offering, Hyperbole.There are no spoken words in this collection of short vignettes, but there are plenty of sounds and images, from seven-foot-high stilt puppets and singing vultures to dancing bed sheets and an original musical score that might actually elicit a smile from Thom York.
The hourlong collection of vignettes is visually and sonically arresting. The actors wear grotesquely fascinating masks that resemble humans but scream freak, the kind of thing Guiseppe Arcimboldo might have made had he never discovered his hard-on for fruit. The absence of spoken words means everything hinges on movement, recorded music and silences between actions. The Rogues pull that aspect off very well; based on Hyperbole, it's clear the theater company is genuinely devoted to its own inherent aesthetic.
But (and, c'mon, you knew a but was coming) aesthetic is all Hyperboleseems concerned with. The 13 vignettes come off as amusing visual anecdotes, sincere and sweet but ultimately irrelevant. There seems to be no point to the proceedings other than showcasing some awesome nonverbal theater skills. The dance, the music, the masks, the puppets—hell, the entire concept—borders on the brilliant; but after about 15 minutes, the brilliance wanes, and you're left waiting for illumination, kind of like the point in a relationship when infatuation fades and lesbian bed death sets in.
Some of the vignettes seem remotely related; at times, it feels a message of community is being delivered: even though we're all radically different, there's enough human soul in all of us to keep us connected, etc., etc., free to be you and me. But I'm not sure what the Rogues are going for with the one easily discernible plot line that pops up in three of the vignettes: a young girl (a puppet manipulated by three black-clad human puppeteers) is sexually molested by her father and beaten by her mother but is saved by a nightmarish, Incredible Hulk-like physical being who slaps around her parents and takes her to a land of shadow puppets.
Maybe it's something about the liberating power of imagination. I don't know. Worse, I didn't really care that much. By the time that thought popped up, I'd already given up trying to engage intellectually with Hyperbolebecause I'd already decided that whatever it was concerned with wasn't that interesting to me.
No, everything doesn't have to "mean" something. No, theater isn't just about dialogue and words and ideas; that's a myopic, kitchen-sink realism type of notion that desperately needs to be overcome. But delivering theater in a nonverbal, non-intellectual form takes incredible artistic acumen. Beckett certainly had it; had the Blue Man Group not turned into a commercial franchise, it could have come close. The Rogues definitely are on their way; the simple fact that they've mounted an hourlong show without spoken words is proof enough. The hope from this distant, jaundiced corner is that next time out, this frenetically talented, enthusiastic group spends as much time on content as it does on form. Combine those two bitches, and the world—at least the small part that still truly matters—is yours.
Hyperbole at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 11 p.m. Through July 31. $10.