Big House (plays & spectacles), Eastern State Penitentiary (run ended last week).

Before each section of Nothing, the stunning site-specific ambulatory theater piece based on Samuel Beckett's prose work, Texts for Nothing, director Mark Lord gave the 35 spectators instructions as he ushered them from one cell block of the Eastern State Penitentiary to another: wear your hard hats; follow the people with flashlights; be particularly careful with the uneven paving stones; move to the end of the row of chairs, etc., etc.

For the most stunning sequence of the performance -- in which each of the 17 actors is in an individual prison cell, simultaneously performing an individual section of monologue, tangling with the chair or wall sconce or bunk bed or barber chair in the cell -- Lord told us that we could stay with each actor as long as we wished, that we should stand on the door sill and stick our heads as far into the cell as we could, and that we were not (he repeated, not) allowed to step into the cell.

I have no quarrel with Lord taking on the necessary role of tour guide for his own production (and I was grateful to him for his advice about the paving stones). It's just that Lord's roles as lawmaker and enforcer were oddly apropos for a theater piece set in a prison (and which ends with each audience member in an individual cell, alone in the dark with an individual video monitor and loud speaker).

Moreover, the rigidity of our instructions is emblematic of the paradoxical rigidity of Lord's theatrical aesthetic. Lord's theater pieces purport to allow spectators the freedom to experience the piece as they wish. We can pick and choose between places to look in the opening scene (as we peered through an archway into the prison courtyard, while actors crossed our various planes of vision) and in the madcap third sequence (with detectives and chambermaids and society hostesses popping in and out of doorways, reminiscent of Lord's Pink Melon Joy at the Art Alliance a few years ago). We can choose which actor in which cell to listen to.

But at the same time we are actually left with little choice at all. Our field of vision is tightly proscribed, our overall experience is controlled to the minutest detail.

And so it is with the piece's meaning, such as it is. The playbill spells out Beckett's fascination with the fragmentation of the self, the split between the perceiver and the perceived, etc., etc.; and explains Jeremy Bentham's "Panopticon" prison design, with its belief that prisoners can be made whole by being kept simultaneously isolated and watched. And in case we miss the point, as the piece begins, Lord comes before the audience and tells us all this again.

As with the apparent freedom and actual bondage of our theatrical experience, what appears to be hyper-abstract or meaningless is actually enslaved in the service of a single production concept -- the "collision" of the text and the space -- that can be, and is, summarized in a single paragraph.

The piece, and Mark Lord's direction, are brilliant. But his is the brilliance of an architect who designs a building to "program experience" as it "moves people through a space," and not the more modest but more enduring brilliance of the builder of a home in which people can live their lives.

At the performance I saw, a stray cat wandered into view, fascinated by the empty shoes that slowly shushed their way diagonally across the playing space. Here, for a split second, was a living, breathing creature that, unlike the images, the text, the actors or the audience, Mark Lord could not control.

-- Cary M. Mazer