Night Crawler

"We're asking $14 for tonight's show," says a small, polite woman standing at the chilly, gray entrance of Theater Concrete. This seems an exorbitant price for a warehouse theater just a stone's throw from Sixth Street's destitution, but then again, going in is far more appealing than staying out. There are fewer than 25 seats inside, but in keeping with the intimate, lustrous atmosphere of the room, they are highly polished and comfortable. Deep, warm lighting and gleaming wood quickly supplant the nascent memory of urine and vomit as people settle down and eye the seven or eight bronze-hued robots that sit in half-shadow on the surface of the burnished stage. The robots appear hellishly organic with globular metal heads and limbs that look as if they were prematurely yanked from a vat of boiling, primordial ooze. On the corner of the stage a brazen fetus floats in a permanent metal womb.

Frank Garvey, the mastermind behind Robot Spectacle: Seasons of the Veil, takes the stage looking every bit the part of a disturbed artist -- black turtleneck included. A casually well-dressed group in the middle row stops talking about stock options. Garvey asks the crowd whether they would like an introduction in English or Latin. The choice is unanimous -- Latin -- but Garvey opts for English anyway. He explains that he is in a contemplative mood and would like us to stare at his work, and then spins off into a disjointed lecture regarding the universal struggle between force and chaos, poetry and betrayal, Moe Howard and Hitler. Waving hands heavy with rings, Garvey "points out" that the earliest Greek actors -- actually condemned criminals -- were the first to write robotic theater, and, um, that society's warning labels are her red-light districts.

Garvey takes his place at a bank of synthesizers hidden in darkness upstage. A movie screen flickers to life. A bearded actor writhes and hisses about "Woman" and "The Tree of Knowledge" before going metaphysical, thanks to some snazzy computer editing. A robot springs to life, whirling across the stage, waving a small bullhorn in the air that spouts condemnation in a distorted human voice.

A loud pounding at the door disrupts the performance, and a drunk with a mohawk and an Army jacket stumbles into the theater, bottle in hand. He jumps onstage and regards the robot with suspicion before demanding "fitty cent!" Receiving none, he launches into an overblown spare-change tirade about being a veteran before shambling offstage. A robot -- this one built from a wheelchair -- roars to life and rolls into the spotlight. Its recorded voice begins mimicking the panhandler's plea. The robot careens around the stage, shouting and clawing the air. Eventually, it whirs back to its corner and falls relatively silent. The film screen flickers, this time filled with computer-enhanced videos of women singing and caressing each other. The metal fetus responds with small, fluid movements while the other robots onstage make mechanical clicking noises with their limbs.

Enter a streetwalker in a tight, short, sequined skirt. "Step right up!" she screams. "You can touch any part of me." She fondles herself and contorts her face into a gruesome, slobbering mask. "Taste my drool! Eat my dirty rosebud!" Her robot equivalent spins into action and takes over the monologue: "I've been with so many men I've lost count." The machine whirs with deadpan sincerity. "I've been with circumcised men and uncircumcised men. ... I've been with men who couldn't come unless they had two fingers shoved up their ass. ... I've been with men who asked me if I had diseases." The robot spins and fades back into its spot. After a musical interlude, the tiny crowd steps outside for intermission and smokes.

"Don't you see? In giving the panhandler's voice to the robot, they are, in essence, giving the panhandler back his humanity," explains a young woman outside the theater doors. She exhales a big cloud of cigarette smoke and shrugs her shoulders. "I could really do without the semierotic New Age videos, though."

While the folks at Theater Concrete await the entrance of the junkie robot, a group of several hundred gather in the stark white environs of the Mission District's The Lab for Seemen's presentation of "A House of Oddities." Mechanical sculptures lining the gallery walls include Cerebus, the fire-breathing, three-headed dog, and the Kissyboys, who, joined at the hip despite flame and fury, prove that love is hate. A flamboyantly dressed crowd purchases bottles of beer and peruses the installations with knowing interest.

"You really have to see them in action," assures Phelon, a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. "It's not really visual art. It's interactive art, if you know what I mean."

Kal Spelletich, founder of Seemen, grabs a megaphone and begins the show, walking counterclockwise along the walls as he demonstrates each piece of machinery. The crowd surges forward, trying to catch a glimpse of Clappy Boy, an 8-foot-high "clapping toy" that includes a flamethrower that nearly incinerated an audience back in the day. Although this is not Seemen's usual forum (indoors, well-lit, well-advertised), Spelletich manages to give an amusing introduction on each piece, including its political or personal relevance, before letting the crowd have at it. The people stuck in the back of the house quickly accept that they will never be able to see (much less touch) and fall into partylike revelry and conversation. Eventually, Spelletich shouts, "Can you guys be quiet? I can't even hear myself, you jaded fucks."

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