Wet Blanket

"Pieces of the Quilt"
Seven one-act plays. Conceived by Sean San Jose Blackman. Directed by R.A. White. At the Magic Theater, Fort Mason Center, Building D, through Nov. 17. Call 441-8001.

I've been thinking about theater as community lately. About the difference between big commercial ventures -- Cats, say, or Phantom of the Opera -- that use illusion (and elaborate special effects) to suggest fantasy worlds, and small bare-bones productions that not only insist on the audience's imaginative participation, but in fact depend on it. The Magic has expanded the cooperative premise with "Pieces of the Quilt," a labor of love and grief, initiated by local actor Sean San Jose Blackman, who lost both parents to AIDS.

Blackman's idea, encouraged and supported by the Magic's artistic director, Mame Hunt, was to ask various playwrights for short scripts; these the newly formed Alma Delfina Group (named for Blackman's mother) would perform during this run at the Magic and elsewhere. The impressive roster of playwrights includes Edward Albee, Jon Robin Baitz, Sandra Bernhard, Tony Kushner, Ntozake Shange, and Roger Guenveur Smith, just to name six whose material was not selected for this production. All proceeds go to the Names Project and Project Open Hand. No one is making a dime.

As such, "Pieces of the Quilt" is not a conventional production, and the idea of writing a conventional review is frankly not an option. So why were critics invited? Presumably to get the word out and help fill the seats for a good cause. And it's unlikely that any critic will try to dissuade anyone from plunking down the price of a ticket. But we're still left with the delicate problem of assessing the theatrical and artistic value of the plays that did make the cut: seven highly personal and deeply felt one-acts by Erin Cressida Wilson, Philip Kan Gotanda, Migdalia Cruz, Danny Hoch, Lanford Wilson, Octavio Solis, and Naomi Iizuka, all directed by R.A. White.

The creative task is difficult: Being so personal, the material must work even harder to transcend the emotional wallop clearly felt by the writers and actors. In other words, it must not feel its own pain, or it risks robbing us of ours. The results are decidedly mixed. In virtually every case the writer has trouble getting started. The beginnings of all the plays are sentimental and choked with cliches, as though each author has been felled by the impossibility of the task at hand. But in two cases, at least -- Lanford Wilson's Your Everyday Ghost Story and Octavio Solis' Silica -- once the hand-wringing is over, the plays bloom with life and originality. Ghost Story is close to the real-life experience Wilson has acknowledged basing it on, and the opening moments feel leaden with guilt and obligation. But awkwardness fades quickly, due largely to Danny Scheie's splendidly refreshing performance as a gay man whose deteriorating health discomfits a friend (Robert Henry Johnson), who unsuccessfully tries to avoid him.

And in the sweet and funny Silica, Blackman gets a chance to shine as a reserved man whose lover, Paul, has died and left him a pair of glasses. When Blackman puts the glasses on, he gets Paul's unfiltered and joyous view of the world, which he re-creates for us in a dizzying Robin Williams-like performance.

When I first saw the actual quilt (displayed in its entirety for the last time this fall in Washington, D.C.), I was floored by each panel's unique expression of a wholly unique life. The emphasis in every case is on the person being memorialized. "Pieces of the Quilt," on the other hand, is really about those who have been left behind. And while laudable as theater that aims for nothing less than full involvement of the community, it trips a bit on its own good intentions.

 
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