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-- Michael Scott Moore

Shadows of a Doubt
In Xanadu. Written by Zara Houshmand and Larry Reed. Directed by Reed. Starring Reed and Belinda Sullivan. Music and sound by Miguel Frasconi. Presented by ShadowLight Productions at the Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, May 21-25. Call 648-4461.

"In Xanadu" are the opening words to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous poem "Kubla Kahn," written not after a trip to China but after an opium dream. And In Xanadu is an epic-size shadow play about Mongolia that Larry Reed's ShadowLight Productions put on, fleetingly, at the Cowell Theater. Reed is one of the few Americans who can say he's "worked in shadow theater for over three decades" -- shadow theater being a form of puppetry played with shapes behind a backlit screen -- and the style he's mastered is a Balinese discipline called wayang kulit. As a preface to Xanadu, he recently put on a couple of traditional wayang kulit shows in South Park recently, one-puppetmaster affairs lit flickeringly by a coconut-oil torch, with Reed alone doing every voice and manipulating all the puppets across a screen of thin, taut leather. Those plays were weird. Reed seemed to be winging his story lines, and his Balinese-looking shapes spoke both Indonesian and wise-ass American, making sly references to Jack Davis' whiskey-bottle party while they chased a princess.

In Xanadu, though, is different. It's been a work in progress at ShadowLight for at least four years. The troupe's taking the show to South Carolina's Spoleto Festival; the four performances at the Cowell were a kind of farewell-to-San Francisco, pre-festival trial run. The traditional leather skin was replaced by a broad white screen, the coconut oil by four xenon arc lamps. The main characters -- "Khubilai" Khan and his wife, Chabui -- were played by live masked actors (Reed and Belinda Sullivan) behind the screen; and the story, this time, felt tight and clear. It followed Chabui's life in her husband's enlightened court, where she exercised a strong and sensible influence on the Khan as his "right hand ... his even hand," although in real life she was probably not quite as liberated as Reed and his co-writer, Zara Houshmand, make her seem. That's my only criticism, in fact. Their version of life in the largest empire in human history suffers from the same ethereal lyricism as Coleridge's. The script tries to hail Xanadu at any expense, and except for a mule that farts in Marco Polo's face the story has none of the earthiness that Reed showed off in South Park.

But the shadow-casting is hypnotic. When the Mongolian army goes marauding, puppets and live actors fight in vivid 13th-century armor, with halberds and pikes clashing over a live percussion background of wood blocks, glasses, and tambourines. (Miguel Frasconi composed the excellent score.) When Khan meditates, noisy horsemen and counselors spill from his head. And when Chabui dies, she's carried on the back of a fabulous bird through the underworld, with Khubilai and a shaman chasing her past dragons and mythical wolves, riding along luminous bands of light and other shadow-tricks until Khubilai catches her, only to kiss a face that turns, horribly, into a skull. This is the real focus of the story. When Chabui finally fades, Khubilai sees the limits of his power, and his empire starts to set, fleeting as a shadow.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Playing Around
PlayGround Emerging Playwrights Festival. Directed by James Kleinmann, Antigone Trimis, Amy Glazer, John Warren, and Kent Nicholson. Starring Assaf Cohen, Wendy Wilcox, Keiron Edwards, and Delia MacDougall. At A Traveling Jewish Theater, May 12-18. Call 399-1809.

Last September the PlayGround project mounted a series of staged readings by unknown writers with the idea of holding a festival at the end to give the five best scripts a full production, and their authors a flattering debut. So the first PlayGround Emerging Playwrights Festival was a kind of public-announcement-of-the-contest-results, and the crowded room at A Traveling Jewish Theater was simmering, with flowers, friends and relatives, balloons, and nervous auteurs. Ancient Greece, of course, didn't lack drama contests. The atmosphere at the Dionysian festivals must have been the same, except for the balloons.

These plays had to be lean -- roughly 10 minutes long -- so three were written for man-woman pairs. Skittish, by Robert Barker, was a funny metatheatrical piece about a woman preparing for a monologue. When she screwed up, the director stepped in from the seats. "OK, this is about love," he said. "You've been sleepwalking, and you wake up in a pool of blood." (A swimming pool of blood.) The satire on acting and directing was good, but the speech the woman finally gave felt fingerprinted by Roland Barthes and the whole self-conscious, language-examining movement he spawned. "You will never know me," it ended, "because knowing is only a word."

Good Fools, Nice Women, by Garret Jon Groenveld, featured a couple in bed. The rather milquetoasty man asked, "Is there ever a time when the man is victimized?" and they argued about that for a while. Then the woman told an (untrue) story about getting raped; the man felt bad and left, and they gave a pair of interwoven musings that settled, redemptively, on the same building across the street. Not bad, but the emotion here felt crammed into the few allowable minutes and wasn't exactly earned.

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