TRICKY TRIO: Our Endeavors Theatre Collective members John Flores, Lainie Simonton (middle), and Lulu Ward promise a different performance every time. Really.
When the British playwright Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature in October, Charles Isherwood wrote in the New York Times that it is difficult for actors to get Pinter right. John Gielgud, according to Isherwood, just can’t do it, because he keeps trying to "solve" the character instead of letting him be ambiguous and contradictory.

Actors like Gielgud expect the textual riches of Shakespeare, full of clues, but the stage directions in Pinter’s plays—"Long pause," for example—leave everything to the actor. Each one needs an interpretation. "A pause is never to be confused with a silence," Isherwood writes. "Each has its own presence and purpose, and it is the actor’s job to unlock and communicate to the audience the secrets of the empty spaces in the text."

If Pinter poses problems, then what about the three-page "Dada" play, (The) Book of Matches, that Our Endeavors Theatre Collective is performing at the Dallas Museum of Art? The script is full of texts in various fonts charging off in different directions, parentheses with nothing inside them, loosely looping knots of multicolored sentences, and a whole column of punctuation, with lines like this:  ( ).".—.—."

Act that, Kenneth Branagh.

"Finding a resolution to Shakespeare’s most famous and challenging stage direction, Exit pursued by a Bear [in The Winter’s Tale], was easy enough," says playwright and actor John Flores,  "but what do you do when your next cue is a blank space?"

Good question. But Flores has only himself to blame. He’s the one who wrote (The) Book of Matches for this fall’s fascinating collaboration between the DMA’s "Dialogues" exhibition and Our Endeavors Theatre Collective. He’s now acting in his own play with fellow members Lainie Simonton and Lulu Ward.

It’s part of the DMA’s attempt to make "Dialogues" live up to its name. Tracy Bays-Boothe, who’s in charge of public programs and media services at the DMA, thought that OETC would be the perfect company to do theater in conjunction with "Dialogues." In 2004, she had seen their fantastically inventive adaptation of Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes, or The Green Pill, avant-garde Polish playwright Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz’s 1922 play. She commissioned them to present something—not necessarily an original play—in the performance space built into the "Dialogues" exhibit.

But OETC’s artistic director, Scott Osborne, wanted something absolutely original, something in keeping with the imaginations of Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, the heavyweights of "Dialogues." And it’s new—so new that well into October he still didn’t quite know what it was going to be.

"We’re trying to create a record of our experience," Osborne says. "If we aren’t having an experience—there, in rehearsal—then we’re not going to have a show. So it’s about manufacturing an experience if that’s what we have to do." He punctuates his points by poking the table with stiff fingers. "The. Most. Honest. Choice. Right there in the moment."

What’s he talking about? I don’t know. But it has something to do with Dada, the early 20th-century movement devoted to exploding traditional conventions in art—making sense being one of those conventions.

"It’s harder not to make sense than it is to make sense," Osborne says. "I think Dada comes in cycles, in terms of people’s willingness to accept it. The more life starts to not make sense, the more art starts to not make sense. With events of late, we felt like this was a good time to be doing this show. It needs to be ready-made stuff. Not unlike Duchamp."

Ready-made stuff. Not unlike Duchamp. Let’s start there with Dada.

In 1919, Marcel Duchamp drew a mustache on the Mona Lisa. He didn’t deface the real Mona Lisa, of course, just a postcard, but under the famous image he wrote the letters L.H.O.O.Q. and presented the postcard as his own artwork. Was it just a stunt? Was he simply making a name for himself by defacing great art?

It’s easy to argue that he wasn’t making art at all, unlike Cezanne or Picasso. But part of the point was to bring into question what "art" actually is. From that perspective (much more comfortable now than then), Duchamp was elevating mockery of pretension into full-blown cultural tricksterism. What was the Mona Lisa by 1919 but a mechanically reproduced image that stood for "great art"? Anything so visible becomes invisible; it becomes a quantity of exchange, no more looked-at than the faces on money. If the Mona Lisa was so common that it was on postcards, then to deface it actually liberated it from its cultural fate and drew people back into looking at it, if only to compare Duchamp’s irreverent little picture of a man and Da Vinci’s painting of a 16th-century woman in Florence.

L.H.O.O.Q. was an extension of Duchamp’s earlier work with what he called "readymades." In 1914, for example, he took a rack made for drying bottles and exhibited it as art. Lewis Hyde, author of Trickster Makes the World, says Bottle Rack "was sitting in the market of useful goods, one universe of value and meaning, when Duchamp set up a rendezvous with another such universe. The art world hasn’t been the same since. Museums once had some sense of what they were, of what belonged in them and what didn’t, and then came this unfortunate collision with a bottle rack."

Don’t call it unfortunate (even tongue-in-cheek) around Dorothy Kosinski, curator of "Dialogues," where Duchamp’s work anchors the exhibition. She finds the exchange between Duchamp’s work and the other artists explosively interesting.

SAVE THE DATES

December 7-23
The Santaland Diaries
Buy your tickets early for David Sedaris’ hilarious R-rated story about an unemployed actor who signs on as a Macy’s elf during the holidays. Addison Theatre Center. 972-450-6232. www.watertowertheatre.org.

December 1-18
A Very FIT Christmas
Bootstraps Comedy Theater presents two short plays in a Festival of Independent Theatres revue. Bath House Cultural Center. 214-670-8749. www.bathhousecultural.com

"Duchamp’s work isn’t about sumptuous paint," she says, leading me through the exhibition. "It’s about concepts and thinking and the power of thought as the creator of art, rather than the seduction of color or the surface." We’re standing in the middle of the exhibit, between Duchamp’s The Green Box and Rauschenberg’s huge glass sculpture, Revolver. The exhibition is not about Duchamp’s influence on these other artists, who knew each other and each other’s work. "The idea is not that they were sitting around the kitchen table trading recipes, or that it’s like, Oooo, I’m gonna do that," she says, "but it’s like this thick, really interesting soup of ideas."

And most of the ideas go back to Duchamp’s The Green Box, which consists of the notes he made while he was working on a piece called The Large Glass.

"At some point he said, ’All of these notes’—these handwritten notes with different colored inks and different papers—’they’re important.’ So he decided that these were part of his work on the Large Glass," she explains. Duchamp made 300 editions—of his notes. The very idea of it is hilarious.

"There’s a perverse kind of gamesmanship that he adores," Kosinski says. She points out the pieces of paper meticulously arranged in vertical glass displays in the exhibition. "These are all reproductions, meticulous reproductions. They have to be the right tracing paper, the right note paper, the original notes with all their scribblings and corrections and changes he had reproduced with photogravure process so you were getting it precisely like the original. The torn edge of a graded paper, something crossed out in red. There’s such a perversion of the notion of ’the original.’ It’s perfect Duchampian stuff!"

And that brings us back to the Duchampian stuff of John Flores, Scott Osborne, and (The) Book of Matches. Osborne, who has been thinking about Dada for years, asked Flores to write it.

"Scott gave me only one imperative: it can only be three pages long," Flores says. "But he also mentioned that it should illustrate its own ideas, how it should be performed, which in turn may be adhered to, strayed from, or deliberately ignored. The result? The text became a blueprint. It’s about the architects of a dream."

Flores says that he’s less the composer of the play and more a curator (like Kosinski). He pieced together everything from textual readymades. It’s all "found text." His source material included such things as discarded indexes of published book titles, syllabi from biology courses, excised portions of play adaptations, even verbatim accounts of dreams and correspondence from the other performers, Lainie Simonton and Lulu Ward.

So what will the audience see when Our Endeavors performs (The) Book of Matches at the DMA? Flores says that Osborne told the actors to explore their space as both a playground and a minefield, a very unsafe place where children play.

"In work like this, we’re not interested in creating illusion," Osborne says. "We’re interested in presenting the truth. Which is what’s happening right there, right in front of you, in the moment. I tell the actors I need a choice that comes from exploring their whole array of choices and going with one, but also flavoring that choice with everything that they’ve discovered through all their other choices that they’ve tried up to that point. You’ve heard of mythological drama that presents Everyman? We’re trying to present Every Choice, wrapped up into one."

Whatever else it is, it’s going to be new every time—and probably a little dangerous, if it works.

"Have you ever noticed that on a book of matches," Flores asks, "they never include instructions?"

Photo: James Bland

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Cold Turkey on Sugar Plum
Go see something besides The Nutcracker this Christmas.

If you’ve ever wondered why you get that cloyed, lemme-outta-here feeling when you see The Nutcracker lurch to life, children’s author Maurice Sendak has an answer. It’s because the ballet scenario is based on the French story by Alexandre Dumas, père, instead of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original, darker German tale from 1816. Tchaikovsky, though, "proceeded to compose a score that in overtone and erotic suggestion is happily closer to Hoffmann than Dumas," Sendak said. "His music, bristling with implied action, has a subtext alive with wild child cries and belly noises."

But you know what? There are plenty of other things to do this Christmas. Theoretically, the annual A Christmas Carol at the Dallas Theater Center should be as tiresome as the ballet. But last year’s performance was so astonishingly good—Dallas’ Liz Mikel in a huge, starry dress as Christmas Future!—that you cannot rule it out. (Nov 5-Dec 24. Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. 214-522-8499. www.dtc.org.)

Also a huge hit last year was The Gift of the Magi by Classical Acting Company. The multitalented Lee Trull adapted for the stage O’Henry’s short story about selfless giving. Steven Walters (resident playwright at Second Thought Theatre) as Jim, the lovely Elise Reynard as Della, and CAC’s own Emily Gray as Madame Sofronie reprise their roles from last year, with Matthew Gray directing. (Nov 25-Dec 22. Arena Theater @ Richland College, 12800 Abrams Rd. 214-505-1655. www.classicalactingcompany.com.)

And there are lots more, including The Winter Wonderettes at WaterTower Theatre, Children of Eden at Theatre Three, and A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas at Dallas Children’s Theater. For a complete listing, check the Dallas Theatre League calendar at www.dallastheatreleague.com.