Word Play
Verbatim. By Terri Kasch. Directed by Mark Staley. Starring Timothy Lane, Shoshana Kuttner, Jason Arquin, and Brighid O'Shaughnessy. Produced by Mike Balsam and the Grindstone Theater Company at Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), through Aug. 2. Call 474-5865.

The program has the weave and weight of a slim chapbook of serious verse. On the stage, books lay atumble across shelves adorned with cobwebs. The main character orders dictionaries by the caseload and interrupts his family's conversations to check the precise definition of the words they use. Already this is heady territory for a twentysomething, first-time playwright. But if there is one thing Terri Kasch's Verbatim does, it is to call into question the role labels -- from "twentysomething" or "first-time" to "genius" or "slow-witted" -- play in our lives. How does one critique a play that so eloquently invokes the powerfully destructive and imperfect art of criticism?

A hybrid of Borges' labyrinthian language-based fantasies and Arthur Miller's dysfunctional family dramas, the play tells the story of the word-conscious Daily family, who run a rare- and used-book store. When milquetoast patriarch Scott (perfectly embodied by Timothy Lane) discovers that he is not only defined in the dictionary but that the entry is constantly changing, his entire family begins to unravel. His teen-age daughter, Zoe -- who has been labeled a "genius" and is played as a Molotov cocktail of expressivity by Shoshana Kuttner -- returns from being kicked out of boarding school; his "slow-witted" son, Junior, begins to rebel; and his wife (a versatile Brighid O'Shaughnessy) demands a reassessment of their marriage. As the plot thickens so too do Scott's definitions: "an average man with a wife and two children; the sort of individual who looks himself up in the dictionary" becomes "an American ideal of modern living" and finally a "murderer by desire."

Like Ionesco's beasts in Rhinoceros, Kasch's dictionary definition starts out as a seemingly absurd conceit and gradually develops into a complex, mercurial metaphor for human interaction. At times, Scott accuses Junior of controlling the definition, demanding that he "change it back"; other times the dictionary seems to have a mind of its own -- bringing Scott fame and fortune as well as ignominy and obscurity. Two customers -- Broca (the delightfully annoying Courtney Jones) and Wernicke (the captivating, Jim Carey-esque Todd Jones) -- represent the outside world's opinions in stylized scenes full of idiosyncratic cadences. As the dictionary's definitions change, so does the pair's attitude: They unctuously plead for autographed copies or imperiously demand their money back.

In the play's second act, the fantastical contours give way to uglier, deeper terrain. Junior (a wily and nuanced Jason Arquin) becomes convinced that his father wants to kill him; he decides to pre-empt his father by attempting suicide first. In the ensuing climax, Kasch traces the unstable chemistry between the language used to describe us and our destiny. The parent's cavalier compliment, the teacher's criticism, the label of alcoholic in a 12-step meeting, all mark us with identities that we may rail against but can never fully escape. Though this act sometimes suffers from an unwieldy confluence of themes, emotions, and plot twists, its breadth and energy marks Kasch as just the kind of emerging talent the Bay Area needs: ambitious, passionate, and as attentive to the feelings that language can evoke as to the weight of language itself.

-- Carol Lloyd

The Importance of Being Earnest. By Oscar Wilde. Directed by Dan Oliverio. Starring J. David Blazevich, Kurt Bodden, and Andrea Pruseau. At the Lorraine Hansberry Theater, 620 Sutter (at Mason), through Aug. 31. Call 474-8800.

"I cannot say that I greatly cared for The Importance of Being Earnest," wrote George Bernard Shaw after seeing it in 1895. "It amused me, of course; but unless comedy touches me as well as amuses me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening." Shaw crossed swords with Oscar Wilde again for a few weeks on the outskirts of Union Square, when ACT's production of Mrs. Warren's Profession was still playing a few blocks south of The Importance of Being Earnest, at the Lorraine Hansberry; and it's no insult to the Hansberry group to say that Wilde can't win. Everything we laugh at now in Victorian life, Wilde and Shaw laughed at first; but Shaw scorched his subject with the lightning force of a prophet. Wilde just tittered at his, with the amusement of an Oxford-bred dandy.

His two fops, Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, lead town-and-country double lives. Jack is known as "Ernest" in the city, so he can misbehave without taking blame for it in the country, where he plays wholesome chaperone to a young woman, Cecily. (She thinks Ernest is Jack's brother.) Jack is ready to drop the deception and admit his real name as he proposes to Gwendolen Fairfax; but Miss Fairfax likes the name Ernest so well he decides to get rechristened. In the meantime Algernon drives to the country and seduces Cecily by posing as Ernest. Cecily can't stand the name "Algernon." Comedy ensues.

Meghan Marx plays a convincingly spoiled Cecily, the sort of Victorian teen-ager who tells her governess, "I know perfectly well that I look quite plain after my German lesson." She has a fine, earnest sense of farce that keeps her in character even when her character grows hysterical. Richard Ryan's huge body and well-intentioned face make a perfect Punch-style stage cartoon as the Rev. Chasuble, and Andrea Pruseau is excellent as the iron Lady Bracknell, the absurdly uptight mother of Miss Fairfax. But Miss Fairfax is played with a crude feeling for comedy by Jeanette Ellen Luhr, who has all her postures right but no control over her voice. Kurt Bodden and J. David Blazevich both do well as Ernest and Algernon, with Algernon appropriately more obnoxious than Ernest; but their farce-feeling overreaches sometimes, too, and their voices show the strain. John Anthony Nolan is amusingly wry as the two servants Lane and Merriman, and he doesn't seem to distinguish the parts at all, which makes it funnier.

But Earnest is really just a model of perfect sitcom writing. In that sense maybe Shaw lost his duel. He once predicted his "evolutionist" theater would replace the rites-and-drama role of the church; and he might have been right if TV hadn't kicked theater out of that role and held sway there ever since -- using material descended from Wilde. "If the public ever becomes intelligent enough to know when it is really enjoying itself and when it is not," Shaw wrote, ahead of our time as well as his, "there will be an end of farcical comedy." In the meantime, Earnest is perfectly charming.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Out There
Avenues. By Jeffrey Nishimura. Directed by Mark Nishimura. Starring Shirley Smallwood, Siovonne Smith, Benton Greene, and Kristen M. Lui. Presented by Theater Rhubarb at the City Cabaret, 450 Geary (at Mason), through Aug. 2. Call 751-0439.

Billed as an anti-romantic comedy about three couples in a cafe somewhere in the urban suburb known as "the avenues," the three interlinking one-acts of Jeffrey Nishimura's Avenues promised humble narrative parameters. No circus performing, no cross-dressing, no poetic political debates by a tribe of Austro-Hungarian terrorists trapped on one of Saturn's rings. Just some regular San Franciscans with relationship problems guzzling French roast. Ideally, one might want more substantive raw material, but small scopes often bode well for beginning playwrights who adopt the "write what you know" admonition with touching literalness. But in the case of Avenues, the modest setting failed to avert theatrical disaster.

Nishimura and director Mark Nishimura (his brother) exhibit some promising formal ideas. The evening opens with a spotlight on a woman (Shirley Smallwood) singing a sultry jazz number about lost love. Smallwood's spirited, husky interpretations of romantic tumult are the evening's high points. (Though her reality within the play is never clear. At times actors would acknowledge her as part of the coffeehouse environs; others ignored her as if she were providing a private emotional score.) Another device with enormous potential the pair use is having characters pass through each other's stories, searching for a lover or espresso. The conceit nicely underscores the characters' romantic myopia; they all think they're the center of the universe. And finally, similarly tempting notions are captured in Siovonne Smith's monologue at the end of the play. As she touches on atoms, loneliness, and the maddening laws of attraction, Avenues briefly flashes a design much deeper and more intriguing than what has come before.

Otherwise Nishimura's script tumbles into every pothole and sand pit in the playwright's obstacle course.

Unnecessary and Unbelievable Exposition: "I can't believe she's late again! She always does this and it drives me crazy!" cries Cole (the charming but exaggerated Benton Greene) apparently to himself.

Sitcom Reality: Miranda (a histrionic Kristen M. Lui), in spike heels and pantyhose, meets her business-suited boyfriend (Gary Wilson) in the cafe for relationship therapy with Jacques (Jed Low). Neither the costumes, nor the actions, nor the characters bear any resemblance to any San Francisco coffee shop I've ever visited. Could it be there's a burgeoning yet undiscovered avenue-cafe culture where dressed-up yuppies come to do therapy?

Dialogue Striving for Wit Through the Guise of Formal Banter: When Woman 1 (Kate Sheehan) and Jerome (Jason Whitaker) slide into forced repartee about the differences between the genders, one feels that someone has been reading a touch too much Shaw.

In the end, it's difficult to know who -- actors, director, or playwright -- handicapped whom. With momentary exceptions, the cast of 11 actors overplay their parts with soap-operatic fervor. San Francisco needs new troupes like Theater Rhubarb to seize the stage and self-produce, but half-baked goods at the local cafe will only sour the public on future delights.

-- Carol Lloyd

Kielbasia: Queen of Poland 2. Written and performed by Matthew Worsyzlo, aka Matthew Morin. At Mad Magda's Russian Tea Room, 579 Hayes (at Laguna), through July 26. Call 864-1441.

I recommend seeing anything at Mad Magda's Russian Tea Room just because the "Magic Garden" in back is so pleasant. Strings of lights hang in the bushes overgrowing the garden walls and you can have coffee and borscht while you sit at the mercy of whoever's on the tiny stage. Kielbasia, Queen of Poland, is holding court there now, with a long accordion-studded monologue about her recent bike trip across Eastern Europe.

Kielbasia wears large glasses, a white shawl, thick nylons, a heavy skirt, and an apron. She's a former lunch-line worker descended from the legendary Queen Jadwiga of Poland, who reigned at the end of the 1300s. Her current show is a sequel to the one she first brought to Klubstitute in 1994, which followed her journey from the lunch lines of Manhattan to a climactic battle in Warsaw for the honorary title of Queen. Kielbasia 2 has a disillusioned Queen biking across Europe in search of ancestral recipes, and eventually flying back to New York. It's not only a slide show and a musical of sorts, but also a drag show, Dame Kielbasia being an "homage to the Mythic Queen in us all" by the half-Polish Matthew Morin.

An aging Polish woman makes an ideal drag character, of course, because masculine touches only bolster the illusion. Morin doesn't have to pitch up or mellow his voice; his breasts can be flour sacks; his legs stay covered. And since he never slips out of character, his show is wholesome: Kielbasia is the kind of queen you can bring your kids to see. She carries two weapons, a soup ladle called "Wuschka" and an accordion, which she straps on now and then to liven some narrative point. Slides from her trip illustrate her story, showing her bicycle, her sausage cart, a picture of her "in drag" (as Lech Walesa), and so on. After a dream about her dead grandfather, pictured as a hearty peasant in a field, Kielbasia describes the motivation for her ancestral-recipe tour across the Carpathians: "The only thing left from my past was --" she says, switching the slide to a blank screen "-- nothing."

Kielbasia's songs are hilariously sour parodies; she twists a certain Pretenders song into "Back on the Lunch Line" -- on the accordion -- and her asides are perfect ("You know Italy I have nothing against because it's the only country that never invaded Poland"), but she's no good at other voices, like her dead grandfather's; and she rambles. I hope it's not taking Kielbasia too seriously to say that if Morin could learn the tricks of coherence from even a stand-up comedian, his monologues would have real force. Right now Kielbasia is just an amusing show out on the patio at Magda's; but the character's infused with a strong sense of both gay culture and Polish history, and it would be nice to see Morin do something more ambitious with her.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Franz/Kafka. By Mae Ziglin Meidav. Directed by Brandon Ladd Burkey. Starring Stanley Spenger, Robert Hamm, Daniel Talbott, and Marietta Hedges. At La Val's Subterranean Theater, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst), in Berkeley, through July 26. Call (510) 835-6053.

Preferring the company of his fiction to that of friends and family, Franz Kafka left few biographical traces. To unearth the man behind the weird and fantastical, pundits relied on letters and diaries. When a lowly clerk wakes up one morning to find he's been transformed into a detestable squiggle-legged bug, well, that became proof that Kafka was impotent. Subterranean Shakespeare's production of playwright Mae Ziglin Meidav's Franz/Kafka similarly relies on psychoanalytic complexes -- and a dash of racial malaise -- to make sense of the man behind the fictive masks. The play opens surrealistically: A medley of synthesized voices whispers excerpts from Kafka's stories, and a Grim Reaper type denies the furrowed-brow writer "admittance to the law."

This isn't going to be your typical biographic reconstruction. Subterranean takes us inside Kafka's confused and twisted mindscape. As a child (Daniel Talbott) he receives little familial comfort. His father locks him up in closets for the night, while his mother, a docile hausfrau, turns a blind eye to the father's abusive and adulterous ways -- the perfect ingredients for the making of a socially inept, brooding genius. His relationships with women fail miserably; his attempts to gain his father's approval are futile. (On one occasion his father tells him, "You're a failure as a man and a lover.")

But in Subterranean's construction -- a mesh of Victorian bourgeois melodrama and Dali-esque mise en scene -- Kafka isn't just the product of a dysfunctional household. In the larger context he turns out be a representative of a confused generation caught in the slipstream between two vastly different epochs, and Stanley Spenger's heartfelt performance brings us close to the conflicts. Unfortunately, however, the production tries to give us too much too quickly. Rather than develop a multidimensional Kafka -- as with the attempt to introduce his Jewish identity -- we get a cliched Freudian case study. A bigger problem is less with the production and more with a myth Kafka-ologists have woven around the man, one that Meidav obviously buys into. His stories aren't all brutally serious and perverse. They're often rollicking fun, especially the sex scenes. In his fiction and diary entries (most of which were censored by friend and editor Max Brod) Kafka was one of the first writers to playfully bring sex out of the Victorian closets.

Then there's this strange idea that Kafka was a madman, requesting his life's work to be burned. Kafka wrote two letters before dying of tuberculosis. He asked Brod (and not, as the play would have it, his love interest, Grete Bloch) to burn only his letters, diaries, and unfinished manuscripts, and not the completed but at that point unpublished The Hunger Artist and all of his other published work. He wanted to be remembered for his stories and not as the patron saint of the psychotic. Brod didn't carry out his wish. The result? Check out the play.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

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