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Hit and Myth
The Muse. Written and performed by Drew Khalouf. Directed by Cris Cassell. At the 450 Geary Studio, 450 Geary (at Mason), Sept. 18-Oct. 11. Call 673-1172.

Greek myth had nine muses, one each for seven forms of writing and music, plus one for astronomy and another for dance. In Europe they were distilled into one inspiring female spirit who gave the artist clarity. By now, late in the 20th century, the muse idea is almost gone. Modern writers are practical enough to quest after M.F.A.s rather than the eternal feminine, and astronomers would laugh if you suggested that instead of interpreting observations from a radio telescope they should writhe in bed and moan about their fickle bitch pixie, as one of Drew Khalouf's characters did, more or less, in The Muse.

Khalouf created three characters for the show, all played by him, reflecting different sides of the so-called Creative Personality. The writhing guy was a romantic fop in Renaissance clothes -- a feathered toque, dandyish heels -- who played harpsichord and gave affected speeches about the nature of art. His contrapersonality was a cynical drag queen, and between them, conceptually, was a G-string-wearing naif, a childish near-naked man who played with cards on a folding table. Through speeches and songs Khalouf pieced together a half-interesting study of the muse superstition. The interesting half was the thought he'd put into the piece, giving it the structure I think I've described; the other half was the performance, which felt smooth and well-rehearsed but seemed to deliver nothing, no feeling or warmth, as if Khalouf were performing behind a mirrored fourth wall.

To the drag queen, art is a trick. Once you think about it that way, he told the audience, "your soul can't be fooled into thinking there's anything spiritual about art." Well. Do drag queens think this at all? I mean, most of them lip-sync. And artists would contend that art is always spiritual, at least to the extent that their "tricks" involve removing themselves from their ego. The rest is craft, and none of it is superstition. I realize the drag queen was only one-third of the discussion, but The Muse ultimately never treated its title subject as anything more than superstition. The fop believed in ghosts; the drag queen didn't; the naif could have cared less. They embodied token ideas about artists and art that could have yielded light if Khalouf had poked them with a little more irony. He's a talented singer, with a strong voice and sense of timing, but his concerns aren't yet our concerns: In The Muse they were locked in a private little box, and the show ultimately felt like a lot of useless agonizing over a woman-spirit who never quite mounted the stage.

-- Michael Scott Moore

To Act or Not to Act
Neurotica. Written and performed by Corey Schaffer. Directed by Arturo Catricala. At the New Conservatory Theater, 25 Van Ness (at Market), through Nov. 1. Call 861-8972.

Another self-written one-man show -- with songs -- overlapping with The Muse is Neurotica, by Corey Schaffer, who was also seen rather famously in last year's Medea, the Musical. Schaffer's semi-autobiographical show isn't as imaginative as Khalouf's, but it also doesn't lack irony. Early in the performance Schaffer tosses "snacks" into the audience, plastic-wrapped candies that bring on a flurry of the crinkling wrapper noise everyone hates in theaters. The idea is to keep us from getting restless, but the logical extension would be to hand out cell phones, too, and let us chat with friends whenever the show starts to lag.

Neurotica is about a gay actor who slaves in some anonymous firm and stresses about his career. If this sounds almost exactly like M. Black's Norma Desmond Stratagem, from the Fringe Festival, it also plays and looks the same. In fact Neurotica's director, Arturo Catricala, directed Norma Desmond. The set in both shows is a dismal little cubicle with a Macintosh on the desk. The main difference is that Schaffer sings. He starts with a rather bad rehash of Dolly Parton's 9 to 5 ("The way to get a promotion/ Is to give him head/ But the boss won't seem to let me ..."), but warms up, progressively, with each song. The story is swift, well-told, and totally unoriginal. It could be called Anatomy of a Sellout. The main character, Bobby, gets a break with a gig as Hamlet in front of a crowd of text-thumbing Shakespeare experts at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. He does well at first, then forgets the "To be or not to be" speech. After that he's racked by chronic stage fright. So he skips to Bermuda with a handsome doctor, but has his heart broken. When the inevitable ax falls at the firm, he joins a gay Swedish production of a certain maligned and bloated musical.

The ax in these stories is so predictable I'd like to see a play about someone who wants to be an actor or a writer but winds up working for the Anonymous Corporation for the rest of his or her natural life. It would be not just more realistic but also more horrifying. As it is, I can't decide whether to hold corporate America responsible for broken dreams or for the really bad theater performed by the people who escape, from one-man shows to Cats on a cruise ship. Schaffer's not quite this bad (he has more talent than Bobby) but Neurotica is very, very conventional. The most thrilling part is the Shakespeare scene, when Bobby, knowing Alec Guinness is in the audience, freezes. Schaffer does an excellent Hamlet, and his mellow Shakespearean delivery is like a drink of water -- or a snack -- in the middle of his frantic show.

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