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Wednesday, Jun 11 1997
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Unsafe at Certain Speeds
Ralph Nader Is Missing! By Charlie Varon. Directed by David Dower. Starring Varon, Bobby Weinapple, Stacy Ross, and Carl Magruder. At the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 21st Street), through June 29. Call 826-5750.

It seems like a perfect recipe for wholesome progressive fun: Ralph Nader is kidnapped and the three radical lawyers who work for him must rescue him after contending with an array of modern-day Lucifers -- an advertising guru, a sex-positive performance artist, a motivational speaker, and a Christian evangelist. Add to this a passel of knowing lectures on the commercialization of pleasure, a gleaming silver vibrator, and handfuls of candy tossed into the audience -- not to mention references to National Public Radio, Burger King, Herbert Hoover, Frequent Flyer miles, multiflavored jelly beans, Martin Luther King, Noam Chomsky, sperm banks, and the neuroscience of desire -- and you have a meal custom-prepared for San Francisco's neo-leftist demographic.

Doesn't it sound tasty? It did to me.
But ultimately Charlie Varon's none-too-subtly titled Ralph Nader Is Missing! is a none-too-subtle affair. As with his highly acclaimed Rush Limbaugh Goes to Night School, Varon aims to cook up edgy political food for thought by placing real political personalities in a vaguely surreal setting; here his subject is the disappearance of social justice in a society drunk on the pleasures of consumerism. Yet the deluge of clever cultural references, wacky plot points, and theatrical devices never provides any real nourishment.

This is not for want of good ingredients. Varon's political eye goes far beyond standard social critiques. He uses a single phrase -- "It's new, it's new; I want it, I want it" -- to capture the way life's pleasures are reduced to a marketable formula. His sense of parody has the force and speed of a staple gun. In one scene, he's an Italian chocolate consultant questioning an African-American man after he chooses the smallest piece of candy. "Classic low-status behavior. Very common among minorities. Go ahead and take the biggest piece. It will help you develop your sense of entitlement." His themes resonate with those of us who live left of center and critique the fall of the welfare state while slurping Frappaccinos. All three of his fellow actors attack the dense, often ideological script with a balance of sincerity and self-mockery. But despite its many passages on the machinations of desire, the play fails to satisfy a deeper hunger for dramatic action. Instead of fully exploiting his form, Varon resorts to preaching, parodying, and explaining ideas to the audience rather than enacting them.

Ironically, the homage to the selfless workers of social justice finally rings false; the play smacks of commercialization and self-promotion. In the course of the evening, Varon plays a dozen outlandish characters in the presence of his three colleagues, who -- despite their considerable talents -- begin to resemble hapless extras in a David Letterman skit. Stacy Ross, as the impassioned but celibate Lori, manages to carry off a number of earnest diatribes with remarkable ease. Bobby Weinapple plays the optimistic but neurotic Avi with dignity despite the role's thankless stereotyping. Throughout, the focus remains on Varon, whose mastery of accents cannot shroud his predilection for overly aggressive characters who rarely listen and often interrupt. Varon's upstaging antics might not be so distracting had the play an emotional spine. After all, social justice and consumerism are simply abstract notions until they are made to come alive when individuals wrestle with difficult ethical decisions. With enough chopping and paring, the play may prove to have such a spine, but it now lies hidden amid the ample fat of the production's 2-1/2-hour length. Like too much candy, Ralph Nader Is Missing! tantalizes bite by bite but leaves the soul feeling at once bloated and hungry.

-- Carol Lloyd

Never-Never Land
Quidam. Performed by Cirque du Soleil. Directed by Franco Dragone. At Jack London Square, Harrison & the Embarcadero in Oakland, through July 20. Call (800) 678-5440.

Imagine: You're one of those French-Canadian sophisticate kids bored to hell with the usual fanfared entertainment, and your totally square parents unenthuse you. Sitting in your humdrum living room, a headless, umbrella-toting stranger passes and you suddenly dreamscape into chrome interiors draped in blowy silk, where mid-Eastern chants and techno-jazz diva riffs boom. Sunglass-wearing, sterile-wrapped goons hover ominously in the background while you find solace with the stranger -- a gaunt, baggy-trousered pinhead -- and a whole host of flying, cartwheeling, jump-roping, and clowning characters.

Welcome to director Franco Dragone's world of Quidam -- Cirque du Soleil's latest journey to Never-Never Land. The unnamed little girl (Audrey Brisson-Jutras) provides the unraveling frame for the unveiling of the group's latest aggregation of fantastical circus acts. The pinheady ringmaster is San Francisco's John Gilkey; the acts include the usual array of acrobats and jugglers and a few striking standouts. One is the German Wheel, a pair of steel hula hoops connected by a few bars; performer Chris Lashua positions himself inside it and rolls, spins, and careers around the stage in a stomach-churning whirl. Another is "Statue Vis Versa," performed by a barely clad muscular couple who, after being birthed out of a huddle of other figures, fall into a miniaturist acrobat act, where tableaux of complex and abstract balances are achieved through dreamily slow manipulations of body parts.

Here the world of play and expressionist fantasy is deliberately constructed to counterpoint the authoritative, superego-driven world of adults. So although her parents (Nicolle Hope Liquorish and Danielle Touchette) occasionally float in the background -- at one point literally so, moon-gliding far above the stage with the help of a high-tech aerial conveyor -- the little girl and the troupe live it up. Dolled-up characters somersault in and out of giant-scale skip ropes; cords drop from the ceiling and bodies go from alpha to omega in shapes, leaps, and twirls; banquine acrobats jet and flip from floor to shoulder, eventually stacking up four-people high; Chinese girls play diabolo, their silver-painted wooden spools leaping impossibly high from stringed sticks.

In Quidam we follow the little girl into a world where parents are defied and bodies and objects can fly; but under Dragone's direction and the troupe's shivery execution we're constantly held in flux. We squirm as they begin the impossible, then sigh with relief and delight when it's done. It's not perfect: Dragone gives too much time to the show's clown act, an oddly dressed Italian trio called Maclomas, who specialize in fart jokes. It's possible that after so many productions, many of them operating simultaneously around the world, Cirque's producers are running out of first-rate acts. (Then again, as I kept reminding myself during the show, the circus is for kids, too.) It seems unfair to say it, but the visible safety cords on the trapeze artists made it hard to suspend disbelief. Finally, the floating, round-tummied Buddha seemed a little gratuitous. Flamboyant Orientalisms are out of place here, in the dreamscape of a little girl who needs spectacle and meaning, just like the awe-struck audience around her.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

Kiss Kiss Kiss
Smackers. By Soon 3. Directed by Alan Finneran. In Washington Square Park, Columbus & Union, May 23 to June 7. Call 558-8575.

"It's a freak show!" yelps the guy in a polo shirt and creased chinos as he drags his two buddies over to the television monitor. On it, two women coat each other's faces in wet red lipstick. Three matching blondes scurry to catch up with their dates, and pause at the big-screen TV before moving on to their meal at Moose's. "Interesting," an English youth-hosteler mumbles before her group turns its back on the display to split a pack of cigarettes.

Smackers, an installation/performance piece in Washington Square Park over the last three weekend evenings, is as much about the cross-section of North Beach that stumbles across the spectacle as the images of intimacy and androgyny that the video screens project. And the assemblage of pressed cotton, black vinyl, and baby strollers is frequently more interesting than the performance. Promoted as "an evocative metaphor for the nature of home vs. transience," the show consists of a large RV surrounded by a square of yellow police tape. At each corner sits a large-screen TV. On two of the screens, couples in matching sleeveless shirts and slicked-back, Dippity-Do hair apply coat after coat of lipstick and then exchange kisses. The kisses start out serious, but then the performers turn their attention to spreading around as much lipstick as possible. At the end of each session, the performers' faces are bright red.

"I guess we aren't going to get to see a blow job," says one man. A young woman complains that the use of two females is annoying and inflammatory. "Would people watch a man and a woman kiss?" she asks, moving on before seeing that the Smackers pairings rotate through woman-woman, woman-man, and man-man -- or noticing the large crowd for the heterosexual couple. Another monitor is dedicated to shadowy video from inside the trailer, on which we see a cameraman filming the schmecking duos as they spin on a pedestal, as if to prove that the video is live. This, along with the carefully visible shadows we could see through the campers' curtains, struck me as protesting too much. The crowd was taking the performance at face value; it's possible that the show is an elaborate ruse, with all the activity existing on tape and the real performance being Soon 3's putting one over on the crowd.

Or maybe not. Despite the accessible, natural setting, the Smackers setup doesn't draw anyone closer to the piece than the invisible buffer that surrounds museum installations. Perhaps it's the cautionary yellow ribbon, the heavy technology, or that sense of the sanctity of art, but everyone keeps a safe distance -- from the art and each other. Sitting for an hour in the park I didn't hear anyone discussing the politics of sexuality or the rituals of intimacy, or exchanging thoughts beyond friendly chatter about dogs. A successful experiment into environmental theater or heteroglossia -- the plurality of voices -- should provoke conversation among its participants. The frustrating thing about Smackers is how firmly the audience stayed safely within their social roles: the curious children, the jaded tourists, the concerned young liberal, and the critic (or art student) taking notes. Yuppies are yuppies, artists are artists, and the man urinating by the tree would like his corner of the park back.

The fourth screen shows video of a chunky reel-to-reel sound machine, the device broadcasting synthetic bird chirping into the square. It's this artificiality, of sound and images, that ultimately limited Smackers as a social experiment. Drawn into a "performance landscape" by voyeuristic curiosity and thrills, park passers-by were presented with imitation intimacy that encouraged them to stay estranged.

-- Julie Chase

About The Author

Julie Chase

About The Author

Carol Lloyd

About The Author

Frederick Luis Aldama

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