The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. By Bertolt Brecht. Directed by Nicole Malkin. Starring Frank Torrano, Nick Sholley, Wendy Wilcox, and Erin Merritt. Presented by Unconditional Theater at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 16th Street), through Aug. 16. Call 285-9776.

Adolf Hitler has gone down in history a little unfairly as a monstrous symbol of Ultimate Evil, a reputation that gives him a mystique he hardly deserves. Hitler was a petty, arid little bohemian from provincial Austria who failed as a painter but succeeded as a xenophobic thug. He rode to power on German discontent, anti-Semitism, and the talent for politics that petty, arid little men often have. The sharpest satire of him may be Bertolt Brecht's political cartoon The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which caricatures Hitler as a gangster strong-arming a cabal of grocery distributors in Chicago.

The play tells a story parallel to Hitler's, involving the Chicago-area "Cauliflower Trust." After 1929 the Trust has trouble moving its merchandise, so its members convince an old banker to let a thug named Ui organize and protect their interests. Ui's men guard warehouses, safeguard trucks, and put down strikes, consolidating their position with machine guns; and at the end Arturo gives a pompous, fist-thumping speech declaring that "peace has been achieved in the vegetable trade" -- Chicago is finally safe for the transportation of kohlrabi, cauliflower, etc. The effect of that speech, especially in the Unconditional Theater Company's current production, is both quaint and disturbing.

Two major reasons why this production works well are Frank Torrano and Nick Sholley. Torrano is a stormy, thick-jowled Italian man who shouts like Mussolini and has the shoulders to wear sharp, gangsterish suits -- he plays Ui. Sholley does an excellent job with two roles, first as the narrator who puts Ui's farcical violence into context by giving brief parallels with Hitler at strategic points in the play; and also as Dogsborough, the decrepit capitalist who stands for President Hindenburg. Sholley plays him with a quavering voice, stooped over, flickering his tongue, delivering lines like "These old eyes have seen what evil can come from penury" with a nice balance of irony and conviction. Lizzie Robinson is good as Dogsborough's son; and she steals the show as an exuberantly snobbish actor in a yellow beret giving Ui lessons in bearing and diction. Josh Marchesi also nails all his roles: The energy and persuasive Irish accent he brings to the investigator O'Casey, who doesn't trust Ui, drives one of the play's liveliest scenes.

What isn't clear is why Unconditional Theater decided to stage this play right now. The program has two quotes about gender roles in Nazi Germany, and some not totally successful gender-swapping in the cast suggests a link between rigid sex roles and tyranny; but the idea doesn't get developed. The only topical hints are "San Anselmo" and "San Francisco," injected slyly into a list of cities that need their vegetables protected. It's true that Ui focuses on the ways capitalism greased Hitler's path to power -- on big and little corruptions that exist right now in America -- but it totally ignores the calculated way Hitler stoked the flames of racial separation, and the huge political return he got for that.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Scent of a Woman
I, Who Have Nothing. Written and performed by Varla Jean Merman. At Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint, 3583 16th St. (at Market), July 16 to Aug. 2. Call 861-7933.

My sister, visiting from a suburban L.A. enclave, had never been to a drag show before; but I got more out of Varla Jean Merman's performance than a fun evening of tweak-the-naive-tourist. Merman is refined, plucked, and painted -- as my sister put it, "She's more woman than I'll ever be." Elegant and entertaining, Merman knows more about the ornaments of femininity than can be gleaned from the pages of Vogue. Starting with her irresistible press photos -- flawless pearly skin and a Billy Idol snarl -- the singer blurs the line between what is feminine and what is artifice. She made all the accouterments of traditional glamour look easy: the coated lips, the clingy pantyhose, a dress that cast champagne bubbles of light on the wall.

She was touted as the illegitimate crossbreed of Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman. Her cabaret songs were equally strange hybrids, rolling from an "I Will Survive"/Madama Butterfly medley into a song about pork products and trichinosis. Her "Ne Me Quitte Pas," sung in English, hit notes lower than Nina Simone's voice can limbo. The mountainous peaks and troughs of her vocal range defied expectations as an overlit black-and-white video of Merman dancing with a stuffed bird backed the torch-song classic. Then the film turned surreal: Merman's head was stuck in a cage, trapped like the object of her affections. Turned out Merman was attempting a multimedia spectacular, though she wasn't fully familiar with the term: " 'Multi' meaning many, 'media,' uh, something you plug in," she explained to the audience. On opening night she fumbled with the remote control, but the technical difficulties didn't ruffle her diva demeanor; she smiled gently and moved on to the next song.

Home videos from New Orleans and stage patter charted her growth from awkward man-child in a cheap wig to paragon of feminine manners. A low point: rinsing out her panties in the Times Square McDonald's. It was these confessional moments, her vulnerability exposed, that gave a poignant twinge to the camp. Her historical videos revealed that those elements of elegance were only mastered after diligent rehearsal. Every bump, grind, and sparkle was the product of lots of practice, from donning fake eyelashes to the stunt of squirting spray cheese down her throat during an aria about the tasty varieties of brie and Swiss. The final number was a snappy and scatological ditty about why she continues to tuck away her gender-defining member instead of going for the final cut. Ghastly appendage aside, everything about Varla Jean Merman oozed ladylike charm.

-- Julie Chase

Family Plot
Mrs. Armstrong. By Keith Phillips. Directed by Chris Phillips and Paul D'Addario. Starring Felicia Faulkner, John Robb, Bruce Mackey, Nicole Stanton, Ryan O'Donnell, and Matt Martinez. At the Actors Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), through Sept. 6. Call 296-9179.

An early scene in Mrs. Armstrong, a new play by Keith Phillips premiering now at the Actors Theater, has Mrs. Armstrong and a local kid named Teddy building a face out of a garden rock. The rock's wrinkles apparently look like the visage of a neighborhood Greek lady, so they dress up the rock with a mop head, lipstick, and sunglasses, call it "Hestia" after the Greek goddess of the hearth, and leave it as a tablecloth weight on the Armstrong family picnic table, where it stays until Michael Armstrong blows it apart with a shotgun.

That much of the play is strong and involving. The rivalry between Michael and his father, Parnell, for a young woman named Toscha, who's enthralled by the older man's reputation as a painter, follows a classical arc right up to the drunken shotgun climax. It's a memory play, told in flashback by an elderly Michael, looking back on this story after the eventual death of his father. Parnell drinks too much, picks fights with guests, and hasn't seen his son in too long. He drops in unexpectedly to join his estranged family and a New Yorker-ish crowd of family friends for a weekend at their Hampton beach house in the summer of 1959. Michael is a preppy 17-year-old, in love with the precocious Toscha, a Bard College coed-to-be with porcelain skin. Most of the play is witty and funny and well-acted, but instead of ending gracefully it levels off after the shotgun blast into a long wasteland of heavy dialogue and wrap-up speechifying by the narrator, a flat, functional ending that seriously taxes the audience.

John Robb plays Parnell. He wears a pale linen suit and a fedora, looking civilized and natty when he first shows up at the house; but the anger and spite boiling under his skin are ferocious, and Robb can be truly frightening when he gets mad onstage. Matt Martinez plays Michael with an awkwardness that doesn't quite work (most of the time he seems awkward, not his character), but his tantrums are good. Mrs. Armstrong is played by Felicia Faulkner, who can be natural and affecting but also overurgent. Nicole Stanton is excellent as Toscha as long as Toscha is Michael's sharp-tongued girlfriend, but when she has to be an art-struck romantic with dreams of being a "beatnik queen," as Parnell puts it, by sleeping with a famous painter, Stanton's conviction strains. Teddy, the neighborhood kid, is played solidly by Ryan O'Donnell, and Bruce Mackey does a suave and engaging job as the narrator, enunciating some of the playwright's finest language in a mellow, nimble voice.

This should be a really fine play, but the author's heavy hand unbalances the strong scenes and the comedy. A stream of references to ancient Greece makes it seem like Keith Phillips doesn't quite believe Long Island is a decent place for drama. The characters keep working Oedipus into their conversations, and if another character on opening night had mentioned that poor king's name I think I would have shot somebody.

-- Michael Scott Moore

White Light/White Heat
Bake Sale. By Ed Gaible. Directed by Ken Watt. Starring John Flanagan, Nina Gold, Andrew Hurteau, Sommer Ulrickson, and Alexis Lezin. Presented by Fifth Floor at Somar, 934 Brannan (at Eighth Street), through Aug. 16. Call 552-5290.

A shirtless David Koresh figure in red snakeskin pants delivers a ranting gospel into a microphone. Flanking him, two henchmen strike angular poses while a triad of women in white-trash fashion crawl in slow motion toward him. From a distance a man in black spies on the scene with binoculars. Two video screens flash tawdry scenes from Andy Warhol's Trash while the Velvet Underground coat the air with their furry blanket of sound. When Koresh turns, the women scurry to the back of the stage where they again begin their slithery journey toward the guru. And the movement loop begins once more: the longing, the crawling, the preaching, the posturing, the spying.

Bake Sale, director Ken Watt's latest foray into ancient text and pop culture, offers what academics reverently call "difficult theater." With no message, no story, and no sense-soothing style, watching the piece feels like experiencing a small train wreck: violent, ephemeral, impossible to absorb, yet irrevocably true.

The action of the play is weird from the start. While the FBI bombards the Davidians with threats, tear gas, and bad music, the cultists are desperately trying to finish shooting a film on the Old Testament. Outside, Janet Reno (uncannily channeled by Celia Shuman) sits at her desk, coaching the ATF or being interrogated by Congress, while FBI agents aim their semiautomatic rifles on the compound and sing snatches of the Star Trek theme song.

The compound walls are made of three scaffolding frames wrapped with cellophane. Inside are the followers of the guru, here called Frank and played by John Flanagan. The Davidians fight, dance, and engage in questionable behavior with their leader. "Frank told me never to eat a hot dog with anybody else," confesses teen-age Nike (an irrepressibly giddy Sommer Ulrickson). Her mother, in a nuanced performance by Nina Gold, glosses over the dark implication with cutesy sympathy: "Okey-dokey, little bumpy-umpkins."

Frank's antics, sexual improprieties, and arguments with the FBI provide a thin narrative thread upon which Watt hangs gestural layering, film, music, dramatic lighting, and text appropriated from everything from the Bible to congressional testimony. With this barrage of image, sound, and word, Watt frustrates the viewer's desire to make sense of the proceedings. But because the acting is so damned good and the direction so crisp, the unique aesthetic takes on its own narrative weight. That is, it does just what postmodern theater is supposed to do but hardly ever does.

At times the piece founders on its own profusion of ideas, which pile on top of one another too thickly and without sufficient dramatic focus. In depicting the FBI as gun-toting losers and the Koresh figure as an insane child molester, Bake Sale promulgates both anti- and pro-government knee-jerk explanations. But this sort of indiscriminate ambiguity can't replace political insight. Ed Gaible's absurdist patchwork script compounds this problem. People speak in non sequiturs, layering personal babble and biblical quotes over the rare lucid statement. Though Gaible's intention might have been more pointed and less elliptical, more sober and less prurient, his tone is well-suited to Watt's lush, visual style. Just as our newscasters regularly condense a kitten trapped in a tree, a murder, advice on buying a car, and a Third World famine into 15 seconds of pure inanity, Gaible's text pierces our cultural skin and probes the irrationality of our national chatter. The result is a throbbing, convoluted orgy of dogma, go-go dancing, small talk, bureauspeak, amputated gesture, and personal testimonial.

With the anti-narrative texture of MTV and the intellectual voraciousness of high theory, Bake Sale moves forward without sense, but slowly draws you along in its wake. What could have been a tendentious exercise in postmodern hubris Watt and Fifth Floor turn into a tantalizing, provocative ride into the heart of media-engorged America.

-- Carol Lloyd

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