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SOU's 'Fugue' plumbs mysteries of memory

Seeing James Donlon's "The White Fugue" is like having one of those nights in which dreams come tumbling into consciousness, morphing into one another through some mysterious logic hidden from waking reason. There's no conventional plot, but themes announce themselves, and there's a feeling that some inchoate truth is struggling to reveal itself.

The play, which runs through Nov. 17 at Southern Oregon University's black box Center Square Theatre, is an ensemble piece of devised theater. That is, Donlon, who's worked in the theater since 1969 and began teaching at SOU last year, didn't write a script and present it to his student actors. Rather, the whole company immersed itself in the project, and collaboratively arrived at the results you see on the stage.

This is something you don't see every day, but it's not exactly new. The family tree runs through Dada, The Theatre of Cruelty, The Living Theatre, various experiments of the 1960s and '70s.

It's as if you were a cook and you brought together ingredients which then assembled themselves into, say, a stew.

A bay leaf asserts itself, a piece of turnip replies, and so on, and the resulting dish is something no one of the principals (onions, actors, etc.) could have come up with alone.

"The White Fugue" is also a memory play. Not in the sense that, say, "The Glass Menagerie" is a memory play — that is, a play in which the audience experiences the past through the prism of a narrator's memory — but in that the play's subject matter is the nature of the slippery stuff we call memory.

What is a memory? Why is it so ephemeral? What does it mean for it to leave us?

Heady as "The White Fugue" is, it's highly physical, with pantomime and gymnastics and dancing. Actors lurch around the stage making nonsense vocalizations, dance (waltzing, twerking), slide down a ramp that reaches from a catwalk high above to the raised, black playing space.

An actor squats atop a stool labeled SELF STORAGE and beats a drum. A man paints a tricycle each year on the anniversary of his son's death. A mysterious figure clothed in black strangles other actors to death and drags them off the stage ("Another memory gone!").

Lines of dialogue jump from the hubbub: "I remember when I was growing up." "Do you remember me?" "Memories are brutal, vicious creatures."

The inciting situation is that one of the characters, a young woman (it's an ensemble cast, and none of the characters has a name), has begun to lose her memories ("You've been losing us!"). The flow of the action from that premise loosely resembles the hard-boiled detective genre. There's a detective character in a trench coat and fedora.

The audience, which ran heavily to college students, laughed often during the performance. While the play is not primarily comic, there are moments of skewed hilarity. But they are often funny in a way that's a little creepy, like that film noir scene in which the dick ends up chasing the bad guy into something like a carnival midway with its hallucinatory imagery and music.

In noir pictures, such scenes often included a scary clown. And there is a circus-like scene here, with masks (there are some terrific ones), juggling, an acrobat and another appearance by the black-clad figure (Death?).

As in both dream and waking life, memories may be taunting, menacing or vindictive, sweet, painful, unwanted, forgotten, erased — or maybe just mere dust that gets swept away to make room for the new.

In psychiatry, a fugue state may involve the loss of memories that make up one's sense of identity. It may involve wandering not unlike the ramdomness of what we see on the stage here. All this may lead to a new identity.

Because there's no plot to "The White Fugue," there's no denouement, exactly. But there is an ending that takes things to another dimension, shedding light, perhaps, on what's gone before.

A piece of theater need not "mean" anything, in the same way that a painting or sculpture doesn't have to mean anything beyond what it is. But theater should produce an effect. Watching "The White Fugue," you may reflect on the mysteries of memory, and you'll probably notice you're having a good time.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.