20/20 Blake. Created and directed by George Coates. Based on the work of William Blake. At George Coates Performance Works, 110 McAllister, through March 30. Call 863-8520.

William Blake vilified the Industrial Revolution mounting in his lifetime with curses like "dark satanic mills," and retreated from the world into poetic visions of spirits that made him famous, after he died, as an anti-technology Romantic. So the big question in George Coates' multimedia experience 20/20 Blake is, what happens to passionate spiritual material when it's presented with cutting-edge technology? "Our work at the theater," Coates says in a press release, "derives its focus from this contradiction" -- a creed that also explains Twisted Pairs, his show last year about an Amish girl discovering e-mail.

Coates looks at Blake the way most people do, as a fiery man full of demonic inspiration, and his show apes this image with a combination of choral singing, dance, light tricks, and rock 'n' roll that may yet move some critic from Wired to declare Coates a genius. But Blake has survived this long only because he worked with an unpretentious hand -- any hint of bombast would make his angels and spirits unbearable. Coates doesn't see this, and in missing the poet's quietness he's also missed the point. It's a shame, because most of the singing and all the graphics in this show are excellent. The dramatic line cobbled from Blake's poetry just can't keep it together.

20/20 Blake is a rock opera about the poet's death. The story is threadbare -- someone commissions a china design from Blake, there's a mystical interlude with some spirits, then the artist dies and rises again -- and unless you want to follow the symbolism, it's totally uninteresting. Lack of dramatic direction lets it all lapse into symbol-heavy pose and gesture. Lines from Blake as well as (awful) lines by Coates are recited pompously or sung over tepid rock 'n' roll, creating an effect not too different from Hair; only Katy Stephan, a soprano with beautiful range, injects a fluid emotional life into her songs as the goddess Thel. She's a talented member of the San Francisco Chamber Singers; but since her songs come whole from Blake she may also just have better lines.

The Chamber as a group, singing "Gloria," "O Magnum Mysterium," and a few other choir pieces, is excellent. I sat next to the director of the San Francisco Symphony's chorus, Vance George, who told me that "O Magnum Mysterium" is a tough song to do right. As far as I could tell it was flawless, and Mr. George said he was terribly moved. But the show as a whole reminded me of the New Main Library, where the technology would be more impressive if there were room for all the books. Coates' flickering light shows, as well as the idea of exploding Blake's paintings with 3-D glasses to create ghostly sets, are well-done and original; but the title of the opera is still 20/20 Blake, and under the dense layer of technical polish the poet's spirit gets blurred.

-- Michael Scott Moore

The Ghost and the Machine
Machinal. By Sophie Treadwell. Directed by Laird Williamson. Starring Michelle Morain, Mark Harelik, and Matt DeCaro. Presented by the American Conservatory Theater at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary, through March 9. Call 749-2228.

You may have the idea from other newspapers that Machinal is a tear-jerking victim-play about the dooming influence of modern life on a murderess. The Examiner ran the line "tragedy of a woman destroyed by a depersonalized social system" without irony, as if a play like that could be honestly tragic, as if any story about a killer with no moral freedom and no real oppressor could be more than a cynical piece of trash. Machinal is better than that, I'm happy to say, and the heroine, Helen Jones, in spite of a few hints to the contrary near the start of the show, is not just a poor quiet victim.

The play is Sophie Treadwell's most famous work, based on the Ruth Snyder murder case of 1927. It tells a tragic story the way Picasso painted a portrait, with harsh, angular distortions. A scaffoldlike set, spare lighting, and suited men posing with flappers in the background give the play an urban 1920s feel, and Michelle Morain plays a sensitive Young Woman (as Helen Jones is called) who catches the eye of her fat boss, George H. Jones. These first scenes showing her dehumanized modern office and the pressure she feels to marry Jones are the weakest part of the play, because they rely on a cliched caricature of modern life, and because her decision to marry feels like a needless cave-in to her mother. Morain's early performance also isn't as strong as it becomes when Helen has an affair: She hasn't mastered the knack of being appealingly distasteful, the way her co-performers have (Matt DeCaro as the noxious Mr. Jones, Roberta Callahan as Helen's impossible mother). Young Helen just seems weak, and two chopped monologues meant to show her hassled state of mind are tediously dated flaws in the script.

But Helen comes alive when a rugged man seduces her in a speak-easy. They spend time in his dismal New York apartment and he romances her with stories about the West. The affair drives Helen to kill Jones, who never seems to notice that she doesn't like him, and at this point Treadwell has retreated far enough from her thesis of social conditioning to give Helen room to breathe. Machinal was written as an antidote to the public notion in 1927 that Snyder, the real murderess, was a cold and calculating she-demon who deserved the electric chair; Treadwell wanted to suggest that the new century's mechanized habitat had formed Snyder, and she draws her portrait just boldly enough to make her point. But she doesn't push it; she doesn't excuse her heroine, and Helen's confession in the courtroom is the monologue of a truly divided woman. When a lawyer asks why she didn't just divorce her husband, Helen says, "I couldn't do that. I couldn't hurt him like that," a wicked slice of humor that does a lot to humanize the play.

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