Martian to a different drummer

Multimedia wizard Jay Scheib colonizes the Red Planet for theatrical research.

MISSION CONTROL Scheib probes a strange planet.

MISSION CONTROL Scheib probes a strange planet. Photograph: Naomi White

Deep in the belly of an abandoned vault on Wall Street, a man with a lizard tail talks softly to his foam claws as another stages an aggressive seduction in a boardroom. An almost whisper-soft suggestion—“Could you try that a little more tenderly?”—comes from the lanky director crouching at the lovers’ feet. Even though embraces in Jay Scheib’s shows usually look like wrestling holds, the note persuades actor Caleb Hammond to grip his paramour slightly less viciously—as he half-nelsons her into a revolving chair. The lizard picks up a camera.

Welcome to Mars. Or at least, welcome to a rehearsal of Untitled Mars: This Title May Change, a droll, discombobulating trip to the Red Planet as dreamed up by Scheib. An unlikely collision of scientific experiment and Philip K. Dick, the show takes its inspiration from one of the Mars Desert Research Stations, a deadly serious outpost where researchers wear space suits and run around the Utah desert. While the scientists simulate life on Mars, Scheib’s company will simulate the scientists—though with a significantly lower budget. Set designer Peter Ksander describes the mash-up of sci-fi and reality as the new alienation effect: “Jay is using Mars in the same way that Brecht used the Thirty Years War.” It’s not that alien: The 38-year-old director lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and teaches at MIT, where some of his students might actually have a crack at being Mars pioneers.

As with almost all of Scheib’s work, the show will be thick with video, much of it shot live in the room. He may not want to become a one-trick pony (“I have an Iphigenia coming up that has no video at all!” he assures us. “Maybe three light cues!”), but Scheib is still known for his multimedia work. Video appears in most of his shows, its function changing to create phantoms (The Vomit Talk of Ghosts), a sensation of surveillance (This Is the End of Sleeping) or a self-consciously cinematic composition (the Godard-inflected This Place Is a Desert). But the director claims there is a constant. “It all stems from trying to work on naturalism,” he explains. “I wanted to take up the game that all my incredibly cool teachers—Robert Woodruff and Anne Bogart—had said was dead. It was my rebellion.”

The resulting works, exquisitely designed with the lackadaisical rhythms of everyday speech, look totally unlike the rest of the New York avant-garde, though they ring bells with theater buffs in Germany and France. “I am synthesizing techniques that already exist,” Scheib readily admits. “It’s just that in Europe, the Wooster Group isn’t on the fringes—they’ve been folded into the mainstream.”

Not everybody is a fan. Scheib’s dedication to observing human behavior forces theatrical time to slow to something like real time, and the pace downshift can leave viewers impatient and disoriented. (Tip: Pretend you’re in a gallery watching an installation.) And while theater has been incorporating projection for decades, audiences still rankle at how the video steals focus. Says Scheib: “Desert upset a lot of people. Theater audiences feel bad that they’re watching a screen. But for me, video is a delivery system. It’s simply a way to bring the performer closer.”

Scheib may be the most acclaimed experimental American director whose work you have never seen. The New York premiere of This Place Is a Desert during Under the Radar in January moved him into the critical spotlight, but this production at P.S. 122 will be his first high-profile run of any length here.

New York economics hobble Scheib’s process. His languorous, ensemble-driven works need long rehearsal periods and the kind of technical fine-tuning that can’t be done on Off-Off Broadway’s panicky schedule. At MIT, he develops work in peace, and then spends roughly four months in Europe making pieces at well-funded spots like the Staatstheater Saarbrücken or Salzburg’s Mozarteum. The expense of dealing with Equity and New York real estate drives our most interesting directors into the arms of European state funding.

Another major director who gigs too rarely in New York, Woodruff taught Scheib, but now sees him as a colleague. “It’s great that he found a home at MIT,” Woodruff says. “He can fly off to Europe, but he still has a place to do his research. If you find another setup like that—please tell me first.” The struggle for funding is just another reason to make Untitled Mars. “You should go to these space-vision conferences,” Scheib says with a chuckle. “That community sounds just like a theater conference—it’s always about the lack of funding. It’s very rarely about art.”

Untitled Mars: This Title May Change is at P.S. 122.