Stage

Local theater veteran Ken Ruta navigates Wilde's mind with agility. Strolling onto the cafe set of moldy walls and discarded opera posters in full Victorian dress, Ruta nicely evokes Wilde's heavy frame and aristocratic poise. He eschews an affected Irish brogue for a distinguished and disdainful vocal canter. In the first act, vicious quips are interspersed with sexual innuendo; Ruta almost giggles when he tells the story of a Colorado mining company that named a shaft after Wilde. But the second act gets maudlin as the play turns into a requiem for Wilde's fame and beauty -- a literary genius shot down in his prime by oppressive morality. This division is emphasized by an unnecessary intermission, which splits the play too evenly into the dashing and destitute periods of Wilde's life. Ruta labors to create a balanced composite, but he's working against a script that flutters between a virtuoso of words and a man broken down by imprisonment, humiliation, and various infirmities, among them syphilis.

Ruta's performance suggests that by the end of his life Wilde himself had grown weary of his anecdotes. One of the final stories is of a sculptor faced with a shortage of bronze. The artist decides to melt down his masterpiece -- titled The Sorrow That Endureth Forever -- to create a new one, The Pleasure That Abideth for a Moment. The tale affirms Wilde's belief that passion and indulgence are the greatest works of art, but Ruta's pained rendition shows a man who paid dearly for his bold, individualistic style. This realization is as close as the show comes to the intimate Oscar Wilde, but for a writer who worked on literary (as opposed to personal) immortality all his life, it's a lot.

-- Julie Chase

Women's Work
Below the Belt. Group show. At Luna Sea, 2940 16th St. (at South Van Ness), May 17. Call 863-2989.

For many people "local theater" suggests a conventional play at the Berkeley Rep or perhaps an experimental work at a venue like Josie's. But there is also a hopping performance form that rarely garners attention: the noble yet humble group show. Informally arranged and produced by the artists themselves, the group show usually offers a range of short pieces at bargain prices as performers develop new work before a community of friends and other artists. Although the quality occasionally sinks well below semiprofessional standards, group shows always provide the tantalizing possibility of seeing the best undiscovered performance there is. The best pieces I've seen in group shows can stand alongside the work of Anna Deavere Smith and other officially declared geniuses.

Below the Belt, billed as "four nights of cruel and unusual performance" at Luna Sea, a women-run nonprofit collective, provided some vicious entertainment as well as a window into group-show culture. Though the chummy relationship between audience and performer can lead to unfortunate excesses in the name of "creating a safe space," that same "safe space" often produces a theatrical intensity rarely found on the stages of most mainstream theaters.

A woman in a frilly party dress (Shoshanah Oppenheim) stood in a spotlight spelling out words and curtsying as if in a spelling bee. "S-n-i-d-e, snide. Thank you." She curtsied. She spelled "vicious" and "contemptuous" with the same goody-two-shoes aplomb, but when the voice pronounced "decent," she stared confounded into the audience. This vignette set us on the evening's tortuous path: an eclectic collection of rock music, mock Japanese puppetry, square dancing, and bad-girl attitude. A short-haired, tattooed, black-clad MC thanked us for paying money but warned us that the show was "experimental crap." "I don't want to be here," she explained. "I had a date tonight, but the producer twisted my arm."

In a morbid yet elegant puppet performance, Max and Leslie (no last names provided) used a meat grinder and a pink infant dress to illustrate a nursery rhyme about a family who turn their baby girl into sausages. Three women in pink tuxedo shirts (Sally Clawson, Samuael Topiary, and Sue Roginski) depicted the unstable dynamics of a love triangle through monologues, kisses, and -- of all things -- country folk-dancing. Daphne Gottlieb's spare "Green Thumb" showed the dark side of "women who love too much," as one woman's obsessive relationship with her houseplant turned to foliage abuse. Alexis Vaughn and Gretchen Phillips played a selection of retro-rock satires (including "Hit Me With Your Best Shot") in majorette uniforms. What they lacked in musical equipment (the amplification was ghastly) they made up for in pelvis-inspired charisma.

At other moments the theater mutated into a very small living room, and one suddenly felt subjected to a scene that was too soft, too private, or too painful for the probing critical eye. Shari McKoy's impassioned modern dance "Major Damage" suffered from the kind of literalness that may work as therapy but doesn't as art. Jennifer Brown lent her searing voice to a melodious song of remorse that was undermined by lyrics about an argument with her girlfriend: "Oh, my god, I was being mean and she was suffering." And Chris Kammler tortured the audience by playing an entire song with her nails on a blackboard, the memory of which still sends the skin crawling.

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