Outstanding in Their Field

By HELEN SHAW | May 9, 2005

At first nothing seems less theatrical than Laylah Ali's paintings - cartoon like figures isolated in skies of light blue. Many of her pieces have the gravity of religious icons. But her still images throb with narrative. Ms. Ali's characters tie each other up, dangle belts menacingly at their sides, and do strange battle with a large number of red rubber balls. Persuading them out of their frames and onto the stage at the Kitchen seems to have taken only the lightest push by creator and director Dean Moss.

Inspired by her two-dimensional works, Mr. Moss has created "figures on a field," a literally overwhelming piece now at the Kitchen. He throws much of the postmodern book at us - performers talk to the audience, a docent conducts her tour in the middle of the artwork. But devices that often feel like self-conscious pomposity elsewhere come across as generous and moving here.

The company, some in street clothes that recall military garb, first move slowly, unaffectedly across the stage. One woman is alone, but in silence her companions arrange their group around her. Soon this phase of acceptance explodes when dozens of bouncy red balls come crashing into the space.

The ensuing, violent game of dodge ball raises welts and tempers, nearly driving some of the dancers off the stage for good.

When the aggression dies down, a small group of audience members takes a tour through the light blue playing space. Around them, more terrible images have begun - Okwui Okpowasili drags Wanjiru Kamuyu around by the jaw, or Keila Cordova finds herself trussed and wiggling across the floor. Men hang, lynched by belts, and friendships struck up among the cast turn ugly.

Mr. Moss keeps the tone light, though the funny moments add up to massacre. Red stickers pasted to a standing man suddenly look like laser sights; piles of bodies accumulate when chatty groups slide unconscious from their chairs. They always rise, though, to bound around in a circle, or to begin another game.

The impression builds of sweet people doing awful things - recalling countries where children carry automatic rifles or stone each other in the street. The attentive tour group, happily listening while men dangle from improvised nooses, spotlights a callousness that seems familiar. In Darfur, in Rwanda, we have affected the same polite interest while bodies fall in the dust.

"Figures on a Field" until May 14 (512 W. 19th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-255-5793).