Stage

Caged Heart
Fur. By Migdalia Cruz. Directed by Roberto Gutierrez Varea. Starring Michael Torres, Denise Balthrop, and Greta Sanchez-Ramirez. Presented by Campo Santo at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 16th Street), through Oct. 27. Call 626-3311.

The word "monster" derives from the Latin monstrare -- to show or display -- as well as from the Latin monere, to warn. Campo Santo's production of writer Migdalia Cruz's Fur is, I warn, all monster. If you think Frankenstein and Caliban suffered from angsty aches, you haven't seen anything yet. Try walking in the shoes of fur-fetishizing animal keeper Michael (Michael Torres), depraved Nena (Denise Balthrop), and sideshow freak Citrona (Greta Sanchez-Ramirez), all of whom desperately seek a sense of belonging in a literally and figuratively cold, steel-girded wasteland of a world.

Michael is a pervert type who grins demonically and stares uncomfortably as he throws out disconnected one-liners like "Beasts are awed by me" or "People who like animals don't have hair"; he wishes, he says, he could "pick up my lover's vomit and treat it like a jewel." Michael parades back and forth around his latest catch, Citrona, an animalistic figure who's naked rather than shaggy, and covered with an elaborate body tattoo. Meanwhile, Citrona paces her cage, eats raw flesh, craves bubble gum, and hits all-time depressive lows; she recalls how her mother "pierced me with a letter opener, then sold me."

In spite of her lows, Citrona entertains desires to get cage-cleaning, pink-hair-bow-wearing, safari-khaki-ed Nena into the sack. She announces, "I get so wet when you come inside [my cage]." Promising Michael she'll love him and that she'll eat his barbecue, which she hates, her wish to spend time alone with Nena is granted. Nena's down with the idea, hoping to make Michael jealous. Behind the cage door, candlelight flickers while Citrona takes advantage of a snoozing Nena.

There's a lot to untangle here. On the one hand the play speaks to the deep-felt loneliness of individuals lost in an uncaring, sand- and steel-ridden postmod landscape. On one occasion, Nena tentatively touches Michael's arm (daydreaming of Citrona) while masturbating herself into an anticlimax. The play also functions more narrowly as an allegory, highly stylized and abstract, of the violence of colonialism. Michael's oddity fetishism isn't just sexual perversion; he's a Latino who has internalized the brutal processes of colonial oppression. Thus he objectifies and codes the woman of color as a beast, then entraps, disempowers, and rapes.

There's also a level of comedy in all of this alienation and internalized violence and solitude. Director Roberto Gutierrez Varea makes room for playfulness by exaggerating the cliches; Nena is so white it's laughable, and Michael's psychopathic grins and deadpan delivery make you want to bust up. The play works best when Varea enters the surreal mode; for example, during Citrona's fantastical dream sequence, he juxtaposes the absurd verbal comedy we see in telenovela melodrama with booming Beatles songs, sand pouring from a plastic pipe, and lots of red light reflecting off the steel cage.

On the whole, however, the play is overwhelmed -- first by jumbled strings of non sequiturs and mouths dripping with gory entrails, then by the lack of a coherent story or a character constructed out of something besides cliche. Even the most avid surrealists will be left with too little to sink their gnashers into. The gaps are intentional, perhaps, but damaging; this play remains lost, unmoored somewhere out in the grotesquely intangible beyond. Don't say I didn't warn you.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

Caravan of Dreams
Caravan of Fools. Created and directed by Martha Enson and Umo Ensemble. Starring Esther Edelman, Martha Enson, David Godsey, Kevin Joyce, and Janet McAlpin. At Theater Artaud, 450 Florida (at 17th Street), Oct. 1-5. Call 621-7797.

A "stamenphone" hangs from the rafters and looks like a massive Arabian censer, with a metal flower growing straight up from a water-filled bulb at the bottom. It's laced with strings that can be plucked or bowed like the strings of a cello, and the music it makes is sonorous, moaning. Water in the bulb makes a sloshing background noise not so different from the echoey wash that comes from your practice amp's reverb springs when you kick the thing during rehearsal. Only one person in the world so far can play the stamenphone, and that's the man who designed and built it, Ela Lamblin.

He played all the music for Caravan of Dreams, by Seattle's Umo Ensemble, for the five dates of its short run in San Francisco at the beginning of this month. Caravan is subtitled "The Fools' Footsteps to Enlightenment," and it consists of a largely wordless series of clownish acrobatic pieces that evoke Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. The "Djool" are vaguely Indian-looking (or -dressed) characters who are supposed to be spontaneous and fun, like the colorful spacemen in Intel's new processor ads. Caravan is about losing self-consciousness, as the subtitle suggests; but the Djool prove the critic's suspicion that there's nothing quite so self-conscious as a person who tries to be spontaneous. "A good traveler has no fixed plans/ And is not intent on arriving," one of them preaches; but the show seems to lose its dogmatism only when the Djool shut their mouths and apply their imaginations to the disciplines of choral singing and choreography. Water drop-like chanting and group swinging on rafter-slung hammocks are hypnotic; scenes that literally act out a few steps of Siddhartha's journey (The Ascetic, The Courtesan, The River) aren't. One radical exception is the female Djool lying sideways in one of the hammocks who scissors her body back and forth suddenly and for no clear reason while another Djool tries to convince herself that "I am not here ... I do not exist." That gesture, and a few others, have real spontaneity, and on opening night the effect was hilarious.

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