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.

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