Stage

Fathers and Sons
A Certain Labor Day. By Carroll O'Connor. Directed by Beth F. Milles. Starring O'Connor, Eugene Roche, Mariclare Costello, and Tony Carlin. At the Theater on the Square, 450 Post (at Mason), Sept. 24-Oct. 12. Call 433-9500.

Carroll O'Connor's A Certain Labor Day has been talked up in other papers as a work of catharsis following his adopted son's suicide two years ago. It really has nothing to do with that. An alcoholic young man has been written into the play (O'Connor's son had a drug problem), but the story doesn't focus on him; instead it follows his father, an old Studs Terkel-ish liberal who can't drag himself out of the political past. O'Connor plays him with the same churlish warmth he brought to his role as the archconservative Archie Bunker, and in fact Gerry Maher is Archie's mirror image. He's an ex-labor boss who blames himself for losing influence with his subway workers' union and failing, ultimately, to keep America from swinging to the right. Like the Bunkers he lives in some borough of New York; but instead of a liberal son-in-law Maher has to deal with an obnoxious, racist son. "Here comes a reactionary, right out of my own loins," says Maher, whining the way Archie did about Meathead. "God, I don't want to see him today."

That son, Burt, does nothing but shout. Act 1 ends with a tennis-racket fight between him and Maher's other son, the alcoholic Tony, over their sister's affair with a black man. Burt seems like an awfully convenient asshole: a levered-in antagonist rather than the naturally mutant son of a former labor leader. Tony Carlin plays him too rabidly. Neill Barry does a quiet and respectable job as Tony Maher, the alcoholic son, and Jennifer Stander, as the daughter, Josie, seems overwrought and never quite inside her lines.

The family scenes are shakily written and not too successful. But these scenes aren't the core of the play, because following Gerry through every scene is the dusty, tuxedo-dressed ghost of his father, Quint, who's invisible to the other Mahers. Quint dominates. He sits bulldoggishly to the side, frowning, hands on his thighs, dropping comments while Gerry squabbles with his family. Now and then Gerry answers, making his family think he's gone crazy. It's an old routine, but O'Connor is good at it, and Quint nicely dramatizes Gerry's obsession with the past. (He probably takes his name from The Turn of the Screw, but he's earthier than any Henry James manservant, especially the way Eugene Roche plays him.) I like the ghost conceit; I think it works because it doesn't need to seem real: Roche and O'Connor have fun with it. But the rest of the play sprawls. There's a coma-inducing subway accident in Gerry's past that never quite gets explained, and the conclusion needs a real eruption of feeling that the Maher family can't deliver.

-- Michael Scott Moore

The Real Ramona
The Ramona Roses. Written and performed by Janet Borrus. Part of the Solo Mio festival at Fort Mason Center, Sept. 25-28. Call 978-2345.

Janet Borrus has based The Ramona Roses on a starving-artist stint she served as a gym teacher in an East Los Angeles high school. The title refers to the black and Latina girls of Ramona High: "The red means, like, happiness and pain at the same time," one student explains, in a recording of the girls talking about a rosebush before class. Depending on your mood this might sound either charming or sappy; but Borrus kept her show at the Solo Mio festival from oozing treacle by working hard to realize her characters. Yesenia, Lizette, Patty, Carmen, Monique, and Peaches were all distinguishable, if you paid attention, by their voices. And Borrus stuck to the facts of her teaching year, which made the show lively but formless, sort of a stage-mounted documentary.

Borrus starts the show as a gym teacher -- white, unathletic, barely able to play the games she's supposed to teach the reluctant girls -- and moves into sex ed, yearbook, and drama. The girls call her "Miss" and seem to respect her as an authority, although in general they've been through more than she has. Patty's father hits the child with a shoe, for example. Borrus can't believe it and makes a report to the principal, who insists on a filled-out form, which gets sent to some agency and prompts a social-worker visit at the home. Now Patty is afraid of her father, and Borrus feels guilty. "I was still seeing their lives as like a mess of problems," says Borrus, "instead of just their lives."

Many of the girls are pregnant, but during sex ed none of them admits to knowing what an erection is. Borrus tries to explain it by sitting erect. "How am I sitting?" she says. "Straight," they say. "And what has to be straight for you to have sex? [She waits.] I know you're not a lesbian, Lizette!" she shouts. (This was funnier live than it is in print.) But the best effect Borrus musters is a babble of voices that resolves, now and then, into a stirring speech by one of the girls. Patty gives a monologue about gang shootings and guns; there's also a long frantic scene that shows Borrus trying to arrange an abortion for Yesenia, who finally decides against it. "Yeah, I went to Planned Parenthood," she says, "but I'm going to have the baby now. I felt it kick."

The problem with the show -- which played for only three nights at Solo Mio, and now goes on tour -- is that it has almost no structure; the only way you know Borrus isn't about to finish, at any given point, is that she hasn't reached the end of her year yet. The material stays un-unified and raw; sometimes it can't help lagging. But keeping a sentimental tribute from cloying is no easy trick, and Borrus has created six vividly living characters.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Dreamy
In Her Dreams. Lizz Roman & Dancers. Music by Eleni Karaindrou, Kalonica McQuestion, Ornette Coleman, and Thelonious Monk. Sound design by Jerry Linder. Film by Kevin Cunningham. At ODC/S.F. Theater at the Performance Gallery, 3153 17th St. (at South Van Ness), Sept. 26-28 and Oct. 3-5. Call 863-9834.

Night Stories: The Eva Luna Project, First Cycle. Della Davidson Dance Theater. Music by Richard Marriott, performed by the Club Foot Ensemble. At Theater Artaud, 450 Florida (at 17th Street), Sept. 25-28. Call 621-7797.

Lizz Roman & Dancers' In Her Dreams begins when the dancers fall asleep. "With each count ... your body will become even ... more ... relaxed," says the taped voice of a mesmerist; an 8mm film of dancers Chris Black and Erin Stuart sleeping in a billow of white sheets whirs on the theater lobby's white brick wall; and dancers all around us (Lucy Epstein, Knute, Grace Kong, Jenny McAllister, Elizabeth Solomon) curl into buds.

As the dancers fall asleep, two of them remind us they're also descending into performance. The real life Black and Stuart enter and unfurl in the now-empty celluloid bed where their filmic counterparts just were. Drifting off too, they become their own image -- and mark the performance's beginning. Dreams begins so easefully that, without thinking, we wander into its frame and watch with a dreamer's absorption, first in the lobby and then later, once we're beckoned, in the theater proper.

To invoke its subject -- the edge of sleep and dream where nighttime ruminations occupy daily haunts -- the dance gravitates toward thresholds: doorways, window ledges, beds, and the periphery of our vision. Expansive dances spread into open space; smaller ones seize obscure corners. Like dream pastiche, at any one moment there's more going on -- and in more places -- than we take in. In the theater, a trio dances on three raked beds. One at a time, the dancers melt to the first bed's base and, in a sudden jolt of near-waking, spring off their backs and onto the next bed, rolling into sleeping arms. Gaining momentum, they cartwheel from bed to bed, briefly relaxing in someone's embrace. Meanwhile, other dancers creep somnolently along a far wall.

Disrupting again and again its prevailing sensual slowness -- with movement suddenly jerked awake, backward-looping film, dancers' barely audible mutterings, and the urban sounds of Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and car horns -- Dreams shows us minds moving from one state to another, driven by stimuli both inside and out. With its surroundings absorbed in it, the dance suggests we are not just interrupted by the bleeps and blares of daily experience but infused with them. Dreams makes visible the dark interiors of dream and sleep; it also reveals their daily light.

In Her Dreams is a brave dance: Roman took something so common that it asks for nothing and pursued it to its end. While the principle she's plumbed -- find what interests you and follow it -- is basic to creating art, she adheres to it with exceptional tenacity. The evening I attended, 30 people showed up for this sleepy and engrossing work. By contrast, Della Davidson's aimless and offensive Night Stories played at Theater Artaud late last month to hundreds of people. The dance takes Isabel Allende's best-seller as its source. They are good stories, sure, but they're so self-evidently theatrical that choosing them risked little -- and Davidson risked even less by transforming them into dull pornography.

Night Stories felt like one of those high-stakes parties where, terrified, people decompose into cliches. Most of Davidson's women were listless dolls, her men stupid hunks. If there had been as much dancing as there was posing, strutting, and stripping, the dancers might have had a chance to break loose from stereotype. As it was, every time the cast members stripped down to their Calvin Klein underwear -- they strip and get dressed and then strip and get dressed again what feels like dozens of times -- we were reminded that we knew nothing about them. It was like a miserable one-night stand where you find yourself asking, "Who is this person?" Though Night Stories claims to be a kind of dreamscape, it had little of the interiority we project onto the surface of our dreams. Naked, the dancers revealed nothing. An elaborate production with a terrific score, excellent actors, sumptuous costumes, and well-trained dancers, the work only flicked at the skin of night's stories.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

The Message
Pentecost. By David Edgar. Directed by Tony Taccone. Starring Mary Shultz, J. Michael Flynn, Frank Corrado, and Lise Bruneau. At Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck) in Berkeley, through Oct. 31. Call (510) 845-4700.

Pentecost is a play that does the thinking for you. It's fast-paced and cerebral, but playwright David Edgar doesn't leave much to chance in what he wants us to learn. Which is: Europeans and Americans haven't bothered to understand the first thing about the ethnic divisions in Eastern Europe. We merrily snatch up their land for future investment and sell their residents our Led Zeppelin 'n' Arnold Schwarzenegger capitalist fantasy, but do nothing for the people who need and deserve political asylum. The play's heavy pedantry is a wall between the audience and the refugee characters Edgar wants us to understand and pity. A soft-toned fresco discovered on the wall of an abandoned church evokes more sympathy and interest than the band of multiethnic refugees driven from their homes by persecution. The fate of the refugees and the painting become inexorably linked, but the art, fleshed out by a less didactic narrative, is more appealing.

In an unnamed Eastern European country, Gabriella Pecs, an art curator for a national museum, has gone hunting for a medieval painting described in the country's "Great National Patriotic Poem." She finds the fresco underneath layers of socialist folk art, concentration-camp graffiti, Catholic graffiti, and whitewash. The painting distinctly resembles Giotto's Lamentation but could predate it by 100 years, effectively relocating the origins of the Renaissance out of Italy and into a Slavic town called Clop.

Through the fresco, Gabriella (Mary Shultz) tells the history of her city, which over the years has been invaded by Mongols, Hungarians, Turks, Germans, and Soviets. English art historian Oliver Davenport (J. Michael Flynn) is a collaborator in the restoration, and an audience to her story. Davenport's snobbishness, and the intrusion of American preservationist Leo Katz (Frank Corrado), illustrates the patronizing attitude of Western countries: The unsophisticated province can't be trusted to take care of its own masterpieces; indeed, after numerous occupations and botched governments, it can't be trusted with its own history. The first act flows along with the attempts to rescue and validate the fresco; Shultz, Flynn, and Corrado are engaging and have fantastic chemistry, and even when the tone is aggressively political, the superb design, lighting, and performances counterbalance the message.

But this equilibrium is short-lived. The act ends with a hostile takeover of the church by a band of multinational refugees seeking asylum. Each petitions a different Western nation for shelter, complicating the negotiations. Playwright Edgar isn't content with this United Colors of Benetton setting. He slathers on two more heavy-handed concepts. One is Pentecost. After Christ's Ascension into heaven the Holy Spirit visited the Apostles as tongues of fire, enabling them to speak in the languages of other men. In Edgar's play, everyone speaks some pidgin of the language of capitalism. Pentecost is the New Testament answer to the play's other recurring metaphor, the Old Testament fable of the Tower of Babel. Babel was the great cooperative effort of mankind, a towering city with a single language. But God blasted this apart because the little bugs were getting too big for their monotheistic britches.

The two Bible stories have a natural tension -- the splintering and unification of humanity through language -- that's appropriate to the play. And when Edgar's characters aren't preaching, they create some captivating moments. As the siege drags on, the escapees begin to swap stories from their homelands. As Tunu, the Sri Lankan exile, Anjali Bhimani is the one player who doesn't speak English; she dances the story of Ram's rescue of his bride Sita. The play starts to resemble The Canterbury Tales more than the Bible as everyone tells a story and in the process reveals how he or she came to be in the church. Pentecost is a great play in the moments when the characters are people, not props for a political statement. As valid as the play's message is, it would be more edifying if Edgar didn't bully us with it.

-- Julie Chase

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