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Death the Jester
Memento Mori. By Chrystene Ells. Directed by Roberto G. Varea. Starring Ells, Lorna Aquino Chui, and Mark Hidzick. At Bindlestiff Studio, 185 Sixth St., through July 5. Call 974-1167.

"Memento mori" is Latin for "remember that you will die," which may seem a little heavy for a puppet show. But if you still think puppets are just a child's fetish you should wipe Sesame Street from your brain, because a whole world of serious folk tradition stands against you. Goethe first saw the story of Faust at a puppet show. And locally there's been a happy upsurge in serious puppeteering. Wise Fool Puppet Intervention, Monkey Thump, and Larry Reed's shadow-puppet group have all given short-lived shows over the past month, and now Chrystene Ells has a Gothic fantasy running at Bindlestiff Studio.

Memento Mori is about a hapless and suicidal clown, Pasqual, trying to pack up after a circus. She's played in person by Ells, in a black rubber nose and an old leather aviator's cap. She doesn't talk, but her history unfolds while she packs, narrated by a spoiled-looking ventriloquist's doll in a frilly bonnet. The doll is the Baby Pasqual; she bitches in a shrill voice about the "sorry-ass, dead-end, elephant-piss touring show" where all the promise of her early talent has landed her. Of course the baby's voice belongs to Ells; we know that because she's not a very good ventriloquist. But the baby is hilarious. Her parents are Punch and Judy, and while she talks about her past they make a cameo appearance as huge and horrifying glossy-faced puppets, treating their child and each other with well-mannered brutality. "Yes, I threw it out the window," Punch tells Judy, meaning the Baby Pasqual. "I thought you might be passing."

So her parents are horrible. That's one reason Pasqual feels suicidal. But the rest of her life hasn't gone much better. As a girl she gets her arm ripped off by a dog. This flashback is played out by a young-Pasqual puppet with a small accordion, wheezing a tune while a luminous green dog waltzes across the stage. What's excellent about the scene is the elegantly twisted imagination that graces the entire show: Without much ceremony, the animal bites off Pasqual's arm and leaves a gory mess of red-cloth tendons and blood. But the scene's weakness is also typical: At first it's not clear this is a flashback, since the adult Pasqual has two arms.

The whole story rests on crude symbols -- a rose that refuses to go into the trunk, a scruffy white bird seized by a figure of Death -- instead of drama; but for a puppet show this isn't necessarily a drawback. Near the end Pasqual dances with "Death the Jester," the show's most magnificent puppet, a skull-faced figure with frilled cuffs around its bony hands and a mantilla hanging from its jester's cap. For kids this might sound like the stuff of nightmare, but the black playfulness in Ells' imagination works like a tonic for adults.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Shtick, She Wrote
The Two-Bit Tango. By Mercilee Jenkins, from the novel by Elizabeth Pincus. Music and lyrics by Mark Kennedy. Directed by Paoli Lacy. Starring Diane Masnak, Audrey Smith, Ruth Cox, Joan Mankin, and Aidan O'Shea. Presented by the Miracle Theater Company at Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint, 3583 16th St. through June 29. Call 861-7933.

"Can this cockpit hold/ the vastly fields of France?" asks the prologue of Henry V. The chorus that opens the play is talking about the Elizabethan custom of plopping the huge battles of historical plays onto small stages. Acknowledging the practice's absurdity -- abridging great wars into a few costumes and swords -- the prologue begs the audience to trust the performers with their imagination: "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them."

Unfortunately, in the intervening years, theater has backed away from action. When theater these days attempts spectacle, it's in the province of tourist-pleasing Andrew Lloyd Webber roadshows; able to compete with neither the cityscapes and special effects of film nor Webberian excess, quality theater has settled into naturalist, one-room kind of settings, filled with used furniture. You don't see car chases, big brawls, or pistol-whippings anymore, and that's a shame. Refusing to be so restrained, The Two-Bit Tango, from the Miracle Theater Company, packs full-scale action into the miniature stage of Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint. The dialogue owes more to Magnum, P.I. and Raymond Chandler than Shakespeare, but as five actors as 18 characters race through 20 scenes, The Two-Bit Tango keeps your imagination involved even when the plot is no more compelling than an episode of The Rockford Files.

The Two-Bit Tango is adapted from the novel by Elizabeth Pincus, one of three that feature Nell Fury, "dyke detective extraordinaire." Nell is a typical private eye to the extent that she drives a beat-up car, women clients cling to her like newborn kangaroos, and she plays the sax. As Nell, the petite Diane Wasnak really does play the baritone sax, forming half the "orchestra" on the musical numbers. (The other half's a guy on a piano.) Nell has a Girl Friday too, ex-lover Phoebe (Joan Mankin). Professionally Phoebe's a gruff cabbie, but she performs all the accessory-female duties: running errands, dodging bullets, and getting kidnapped in the third act. Our hero's assignment is to crack the case of the missing sexpot/heiress/stripper twins while buzzing around S.F. and making stops at the Mint, the G Spot, and the Cliff House, each of these scenes created with simple synecdoche: a fishbowl for an apartment, a glittering curtain for a topless dance club, a unicycle for rented wheels.

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