Company director Randall Kent Cohn, who also directs this production, helpfully presents a page and a half of notes about the seventeenth-century Jewish mystic of the title, and an insert defines "pseudepigrapha" as "a group of writings not included in the biblical canon, some of which were falsely ascribed to biblical characters" or "any written work falsely ascribed to an author after that author's death." Though the guide makes it easier to comprehend the sixty-minute piece that is told through text, dance, song and acrobatics, there's no escaping that it's a piece told through text, dance, song and acrobatics.
Cohn has said that theatrical conventions are not part of his plan -- a statement that, though it borders on braggadocio, doesn't have to be a negative. Theatre De Complicite's recent production of Mnemonic in the auditorium of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice didn't depend on theatrical conventions, either; it opened like a stand-up comedy routine, included a moment where patrons donned blindfolds taped to their armrests and ended with a quartet of actors chillingly transforming a collapsed chair into the form of a man about to freeze to death. It was the kind of show that stared you down while daring you to dip into the avant-garde. Sabbatai is in-your-face as well, but rather like a needy poet asking for spare change.
Sabbatai, enraged by Jewish tradition, declared himself a prophet who took pride in eating forbidden foods, performing ritual acts on the wrong days and committing other acts of blasphemy. Cohn's four actors -- Jenny Azima, Megan Downes, Susan Garret and Chad Solomon -- trade roles and genders, uniting periodically as a not atonal chorus. The cast members (Solomon is the male, but the three women aren't identifiable by the program) are hardly ever still, communicating this tale with choreographed flourishes that oddly recall both Martha Graham and Nazis goose-stepping across Europe. You can at least count on your eyes' getting the same kind of workout they would at a Ping-Pong tournament; there is a lot to see, if not a lot to comprehend.
It's all as heavy-handed as a Tom Stoppard play. The company is awfully fond of breaking strings of beads -- and of the splattering sound they make as they land hither and yon. Used once to exemplify a marriage gone sour, the trick is effective; the sixth time, it's gimmickry. But the Society's inventive manipulation of the deceptively bare space is unmistakably clever. Actors appear out of concealed niches in the room, and ropes, long swatches of material and a trapeze drop out of the ceiling or pop out of the floor. For having a shoestring budget, the show is impressively lit -- especially the climax, when a spotlight that has been placed beneath the floor shoots its rays skyward through strategically drilled holes. The moment sheds literal light on a play that can't help but leave most viewers in the dark. Adjacent to Theatre Lab: 18 is Gem Theatre executive Pat Jordan's new Studio 18, where jazz chanteuse Queen Bey recently completed the three-week engagement of a fresh and winsome one-woman show. On the last Friday night of the run, both shows' audiences mingled on the sidewalk outside and, when Sabbatai was over, its audience lingered some more to eavesdrop on the last ten minutes of Bey's show. (The evening felt almost urban, especially after a city maintenance crew picked the 8 p.m. curtain time to remove a steel plate from the street and tar over the hole it had covered.)
Backed by a three-piece combo and wearing something plush and a bit transparent (though it was over another garment), Queen Bey tripped the night fantastic with stories of her Orchid Room gigs in the 1950s, the Los Angeles Playboy Club of the 1960s and her exploits in Europe, where the natives were less stiff about embracing jazz performers. Nearly a dozen songs figured in the biography at appropriate intervals, such as her snazzy take on "Route 66" as the tale crossed the Midwest on the way to sunny California. The show -- and Queen's life -- called out for an R-rated 11 p.m. version, which Bey and Jordan say they might consider when the show returns to Studio 18 this fall.