Instead, they embody their beliefs, enthralling us with their sheer versatility. Each performer plays drums, sings, dances, and acts, and together the group exudes quirky collaborative genius. Whether it's Stanya Kahn's sultry singing voice, Stephanie Maher tearing up the stage with her animalistic physicality, Jess Curtis' channeling the poignantly paranoid character of "Tiny Man," Keith Hennessy's gender-bent clowning, or Jules Beckman's lush one-man band of guitar, drums, and vocals, the performance tribe transmit their anarchic spiritual message through the example of visceral interaction and uncompromising individuality.

The raw, multimedia nature of the work is reined in by the group's precise attention to smooth transitions, quiet moments, and clarity of focus. Throwing and catching two flying utility chairs, Beckman and Hennessy compete in a unisoned duet of stamina and grace. Kahn, dressed in a surreal costume of inner tubes and marshmallow Peeps, emancipates her rubber ducky from a tin bathtub home before descending into lonely madness. In the midst of a demonic percussive symphony on five chairs, the group breaks for a casual meal of canned sardines.

Though the show does at times fall prey to the cliches endemic in most apocalypse art -- a woman babbles as she warms herself over a trash can fire, characters say unfortunate lines like: "The world is on fire with status and abuse!" -- Entertainment for the Apocalypse carves into uncharted territory with insatiable vision, beauty, and humor.

-- Carol Lloyd

Reality Bites
Dalliance. By Tom Stoppard. Directed by Katie Bales. Starring Patrick Dooley, Paul Vincent Black, Sandie Armstrong, and Marin Van Young. Presented by Shotgun Players at La Val's Subterranean Theater, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst) in Berkeley, through May 31. Call (510) 716-9082.

In 1896 libertine Austrian Arthur Schnitzel shocked domestic middle-classers by playfully debasing human interaction in his play Liebelei (sometimes translated as "Light o' My Life"). In the late '80s British director Tom Stoppard renamed the play Dalliance, cranked up its playfulness, added an avant-garde stylistic self-consciousness, and altered the nomenclature: fraulein, for example, became "popsie." Now Shotgun Players director Katie Bales takes up the play, adding to it a dash more charm and a tad more perversity.

The setting is fin de siecle Vienna, where on-the-go Theodore (Patrick Dooley) tries to fish ex-dragoon Fritz (Paul Vincent Black) out of a metaphysical quagmire. Unlike Theo, who calls a "mink" a "mink" and considers them trophies to be won, Fritz can't stop sighing for the unavailables. Theo prescribes wine and women. Enter demimonde-ish Mizi (Sandie Armstrong) and the blue-eyed little innocent Christine (Marin Van Young). Product of a phallocentric world, Mizi confounds Theo with her pink low-cut pinafore, hard-to-get attitude, and trenchant talk. "We want to be dragooned," she announces. Christine's too sticky for Fritz's taste, but her persistent feel-sorry-for-me tactics break down his emotional reserve. The arrival of a gentleman (Michael Storm) brings startling news, eventually churning up dark secrets that lead to intimations of everyone's fragile mortality.

Under Bales' direction, and with some excellent acting, Dalliance is about more than carnality. Occasional pinches remind us that a play is a play, and reality -- well, reality. The audience is not allowed to escape into illusion. The characters speak in a transnational pastiche of Scottish, Irish, and West Coast U.S. dialects, and the script brandishes a Pirandello-esque self-reflexivity and various anachronisms. During a neat scene-switch from Christina's apartment to the beginning of a play-within-a-play, Fritz remains center stage; "Are you sure I've never been here before?" he asks. At another point, a character describes a bottle of wine to be from "mille neuf cent soixante-neuf."

Bales et al. assume they've got an audience already familiar with such metadramatic modes. Otherwise the characters would have to teach the audience how to understand the play -- which occasionally Bales' direction seems reluctant to do. Christine, for example, is a plainly earnest character here; the production's strokes aren't broad enough to paint her as what she really is, a parody of the manipulatrix. She steps out of the piece's overall playful feel, declaring at the end that Theo is a "shitbucket." But then again, maybe that's the point. People, even in the invented world of plays, are too complex to classify.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

The Ward
What the Butler Saw. By Joe Orton. Directed by Sarah Stillpass. Starring Rebecca Stow, Walter Niejadlik, and Lee Kiszonas. Presented by the Chameleon Theater at Venue 9, 252 Ninth St., through May 10. Call 626-6404.

What the Butler Saw ends with a shameless display of Winston Churchill's penis, bronzed. I might as well reveal the fact, for those who like bronzed penises or really can't stand them and want to attend or avoid the play for that reason. Offensiveness was Joe Orton's method. "It's the only way to smash the wretched civilization," he wrote in his journal -- recording a scrap of conversation with his lover, Kenneth Halliwell -- while he was immersed in Butler. "Sex is the only way to infuriate them. Much more fucking and they'll be screaming hysterics in no time." For jealous lovers' reasons Halliwell killed the playwright with nine hammer blows to the skull a few weeks after Butler was finished, in 1966.

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