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Paint by Numbers
Painting Churches. By Tina Howe. Directed by Amy Robins. Starring Susan Collins, Ralph Miller, and Dolores Richardson-Lubin. Presented by Actors Ensemble of Berkeley at the Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck in Berkeley, through Feb. 22. Call (510) 528-5620.

Do you like television "movies of the week" with angels and family secrets and Richard Thomas Jr.? If so, run to Painting Churches, presented by the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley. But if you prefer your theater more intellectually stimulating than a Hallmark card, Tina Howe's cloying, feel-good family album will hold little for you. Most faults of the production lie in Howe's plodding, pedestrian script. The Churches of the title are Gardner and Fanny Sedgwick Church, highbrow Bostonians. Gardner is a senile poet, Fanny his loyal caretaker. Literary references are dropped into the text to validate the fictional characters' importance -- Ezra Pound once bought Gardner a pair of shoes, we're told. Their daughter, Mags, is an art instructor who's just been discovered. A still life of Mummy and Daddy will be part of her SoHo premiere. Mags attempts the portrait as her parents are packing to move.

Howe has a promising setup, but the play never plumbs the artistic process of poet and painter, or the relationship between father and daughter. Howe's handling of poignant moments is forced; they read like Bazooka Joe fortunes typed in at the end of Doogie Howser, M.D. As the poet, Ralph Miller is the lifeline of the show, his disciplined performance keeping the sugarfest in check. Dolores Richardson-Lubin, as his wife, struggles with lines, but is charming as the frenzied matriarch. The couple are supposed to be pleated-skirt-and-pearls Boston chic, but Howe does little to distinguish them from Sun Belt trailer-park elderly, gossiping about neighbors' diseases.

Susan Collins is less appealing as Mags. The high-strung artist is a hangover from the '80s, bent on blaming her anorexia and alcoholism on stuffy parents who squelched her inner child. Collins' crocodile tears and whining turn the play's climax into melodrama. When Gardner and Fanny fawn over the finished painting, Collins does Sally Field: "They like it! ... They like it!" Director Amy Robins attempts to compensate for the static script with motion and color, but the show runs a half-hour too long for its two short acts.

-- Julie Chase

Cell Blocked
Hurricane. By Erin Cressida Wilson. Directed by Delia MacDougall. Starring Margo Hall and Lynne Soffer. At New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom, through Feb. 16. Call 267-3956.

Tuned into the horror of World War I, Brecht dished up theatrical eye-openers that asked audiences not "to hang its brains up in the cloakroom along with its coat." His theater aimed to enlighten -- socially and politically. Spinning out of this tradition, writer Erin Cressida Wilson and director Delia MacDougall stir up a mess of socio-political issues with Hurricane. Serving time in solitary somewhere in Africa, the play's framing character, Katy (Margo Hall), looks to the stone walls for comfort. Emanating from the wall are voices of the disenfranchised from around the world. We move from Africa to NYC to Utah to S.F., encountering the likes of an anorexic woman, a cross-dressing "mo" (homosexual), Latinas coping with AIDS, and a back-of-the-woods type with post-fallout cancer.

Bud-drinking Esther (Lynne Soffer) is wise beyond her hickness. She waxes surreal, juxtaposing the "spitfire light" of an A-bomb test explosion with "burning rabbits [that] run across fields." Esther tells her story as a way of coming to terms with losing her baby in a stillborn birth and having her own "voice box cut right out." New York roommates Ray (Colman Domingo) and Judy (Jamie Comer) have little in common. Ray's a megaqueen on the prowl for some Puerto Rican ass who thinks an Ashanti symbol tattooed to his newly shaved head will give him some African cachet. Judy's your basic Kate Moss wannabe. Ray squirms uncomfortably in and out of every fashionable combo his wardrobe offers, while an emaciated Judy obsesses over her too-small breasts and too-fat ass.

The other stories also push the body-as-residual-site-for-alienation theme. Mixed Chicana-Irish Molly (Cristina Frias) lives with her mother, Maria (Monica Sanchez), a firm believer in doing what it takes to climb the social ladder. Maria, suffering from AIDS-induced pneumonia, refuses to tell Molly about the life of her absentee Irish father; she forces her to dye her red hair black to look more chola and cash in her affirmative-action ticket at Stanford. Molly wants to know about her heritage but also wants some maternal affection, but the only connection she gets is when she shoots Maria up with a daily dose of AZT.

Hurricane hits hard, but this is supposed to be theater, not a political shindig. Wilson and MacDougall get far too femcrit-politico here, offering up talking heads instead of fully realized characters. Katy never develops beyond her "I want to scream" rhetoric; Molly is too wrapped up in her "my mother taught me how to feel anger" cliches to be compelling; and Judy's "I cum therefore I am" does little to deepen our understanding of the human condition. Slamming the issues only drives us harder to coat-rack the brain.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

Teamwork
Bay Area Theatersports. Winter tournament. At the Bayfront Theater, Bldg. B in Fort Mason, Mondays through Feb. 24. Call 824-8220.

One problem with reviewing an improv contest like the Bay Area Theatersports tournament moving forward each week at the Bayfront -- aside from the quicksilver nature of improv -- is that it's already been reviewed. Each contest between two small teams is scored by a panel of judges, and the teams advance or flounder on the points they earn, with very few skits repeated or even remembered from week to week. So it's the judges' opinions that matter, not mine.

But the Bay Area Theatersports company is looked up to by improv groups in other cities, and Bay Area teams have won the state championship three years running. (Theatersports is an international network of improv companies.) One reason they're reliable may be the judges, who give tough grades on a scale of 1 to 5. The actors use some formal ideas about structure, maybe a pre-rehearsed character, cues from one another, and all the inspiration they can stoke to develop and finish a skit. The best have real farce talent, a knack for being poker-faced funny; the worst look as unprepared as they are, stiff in body and mind. So a typical show is closer to late-period Saturday Night Live than hot, improvised bebop, and the BATS members who sit in the judges' chairs have seen more terrible skits than most normal people. This makes them jaded. When the first half of last week's contest developed a prehistoric motif, with one team playing cave men and the other evoking dinosaurs in wordless, funny, tightly performed skits, the audience hooted and laughed; but the unruffled judges weighed in with a stern round of 2s. Grunting your dialogue, they seemed to say, is cheating.

A good improv show needs not just quick actors but also a responsive audience, and last week's crowd was lively. The most graceful skit turned on "something aromatic" -- "lavender," said an enterprising spectator, and Rafe Chase slipped into character as a tough, masculine type who had just fixed his car. His fruity, Cosmo-reading roommate, played by Kirk Livingston, complained about the perfume ads in his magazine and never mentioned odor again. The echo of queerness was muted, flirted with -- "lavender" was never uttered -- and the skit earned two 3s and a 4, not a bad score for the night.

The audience was also brash enough to shout down the judges after a tough experimental piece, a skit that asked each actor to invent someone else's character, meaning one person made up dialogue while the other lip-synced and gestured. Since each marionettist, so to speak, was also a marionette, things got hugely complicated, and the actors mixed up their roles. But the audience was amazed that the four actors could steer the skit to a vaguely coherent end, and when the judges showed 2s and a 3, everyone hissed and jeered -- for minutes, sick to death of the judges' contempt -- with even the critic making himself useful by wadding blank notebook pages and lobbing them toward the front.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Din
Stomp. At the Golden Gate Theater, 1 Taylor, through Feb. 23. Call 776-1999.
"They paid so much to see the working class show them how much they enjoy sweeping the floor," whispered my husband, his sarcasm singeing my ear. The cast of Stomp, the British percussive phenom-cum-cottage industry, had worked their funky beats with brooms, dustpans, mops, pails, and spackling knives, and were now entering a climactic zone of garbage lids and oil-can stilts. Though I was enjoying myself, I had to admit these performers embodied everything one could want from a passel of happy domestics. They were sexy, tireless, and knew how bust a pretty move while doing manual labor.

Stomp is the brain- and buck-child of Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, longtime collaborators in commercial music and theater. Before Stomp, the duo were choreographing Heineken commercials and Bette Midler's stage shows. So this isn't your average story of underclass art commodified. Still, the whole rollicking event smacks of minstrel fever. (The cast is actually multiethnic, roughly half-black, half-white.)

To be fair, Stomp's elevation of workerly rhythms offers more than hip-hop step-and-fetch-it. In a time of artistic angst and pretension, the ensemble of seven men and two women reminds us that music exists in the humblest of human acts. You don't need a baby grand or a CD player; you can just attune yourself to unraveling fugues of everyday life. Watching them is like imbibing a youth serum. For a crowd more at home at the symphony than in the dance hall, Stomp also provides a cross-generational, cross-class education in the joys of funk. It had the blue-veined man down the aisle pulsing his pelvis and the taffeta-scarved lady with the opera glasses clapping out polyrhythms. But for anyone with a political consciousness, this was strange fare for $42.50.

Indeed, Stomp raises some interesting questions. Is it right to demand political content from a concert just because the instruments come from a janitor's trolley instead of a Stradivarius? Do these proletariat materials carry with them an attendant responsibility to address their origins? Stomp missed many artistic opportunities by eschewing content in favor of giddy, inexorable entertainment. The intermittent appearance of a boss could have clashed with and incited the compulsive play of the "workers." More unpredictable relationships among the players would have sharpened a narrative edge on which to balance certain themes. Instead, the Stomp performers limited their theatrical interactions to a single formula: One guy or gal gets a little too goofy and the others stop and watch him warily. Funny though it is, by the ninth round one wondered what interactions they left on the rehearsal room floor in order to preserve such a supremely sanitized good time.

-- Carol Lloyd

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