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.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Into the Wouds
Woud. Choreography by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. Performed by Rosas. Music by the Duke Quartet. Presented by San Francisco Performances at Center for the Arts, 700 Howard (at Third Street), Oct. 9-12. Call 392-4400.

Seeing Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's Woud ("Wood") is like sitting on a sand dune's crest watching the wildest ocean rise in perfect waves -- and then break against a wall of rock. In the waves' persistence -- their elegant, uncalculating dumbness -- there's something unnerving and familiar. Just before a full surge shatters, I make a wish to a godless universe: This time, let the wave ride right over the rocks, unscathed. In its waves of movement and the larger meanings they evoke, Woud is all about this hope for an accident of transformation: for our individual selves to become something greater, for illusion to turn into truth.

In Woud (which had its U.S. premiere at Center for the Arts earlier this month), the single straight line of the dancers' bodies repeatedly fractures, as if something inside, like breath, had broken out. Just as the dancers are hitting the deepest point of a perfectly straight-backed grand plie, their backs suddenly fold and they tumble to the floor with such force that they're instantly rolled back up to their knees. But the pull of their thrown torsos sends them along the ground again. And, propelled by the pendulum swing of their heads, dancers leap, turning in the air before they slide back to the floor. Rosas, Keersmaeker's company, mesmerizes us with myriad variations on the basic theme of rising and falling.

Over time, these variations begin to suggest a story of elusive intimacies. The dancers first encounter one another through accidents of timing, pairing up by grazing shoulders in some kind of race. Even lifts occur in motion, with men running as they catch women (conventional in this regard, Keersmaeker always has the man lift the woman) and continuing to run even after she's in his arms, arching her back around his waist, or lying -- a thin line -- over his head. They swirl around each other, descending to the floor before their union quickly dissolves. As the small and constant crescendos and decrescendos of the three-part score (Berg's Lyrical Suite, Schsnberg's early Verklarte Nacht, and Wagner's Wesendonck Lied No. 3) move from dissonance to lyricism, the duets stretch out in time, and a few dancers return again to the same partners. But that magic where a chance encounter's suggestion of intimacy somehow slides into fact never occurs. At the close of a particularly playful and gentle duet, an exultant Kosi Hidama dances a faunlike hymn to his god of desire; his partner (Iris Bouche) walks off blankly -- and doesn't look back.

The dance draws us just to the edge of romantic trance -- and then yanks us away. Keersmaeker wants us to notice that some of our dearer things are made of illusion -- which is why they disintegrate when attention is withdrawn. When Bouche turns and leaves, no romance is left behind. Woud is not just sad; it's subtly urgent, too. At the dance's conclusion, a spotlight follows two members of the crew dismantling a few of the silver birches that have served as Woud's setting. After they exit, lights that until now have suffused the stage in a dusky mildness suddenly blare like a bare bulb. A lone dancer (Cynthia Loemij) twitches -- does battle -- among the wreckage: the trees split in half, their insides exposed. No wood core, it turns out, just strips of metal. As we watch the dance tear itself open, just as, earlier, we watched it expose the workings of romance, we realize its interior isn't where we thought it was. The dance might have been in the wood to start, but now it's in us. And if we grow oblivious, it won't be anywhere.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Wild Thing
Just Wild About Harry. By Henry Miller. Directed by Paul D'Addario. Starring Jennifer Welch, Chloe Taylor, and Ian Hirsch. At Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (at Turk), through Oct. 25. Call 673-3847.

Just Wild About Harry is the only play Henry Miller ever published, and he probably never meant it to be staged, since he ignored the plight of directors and threw in, for fun, a talking bird, an elevated train, and a shattering plate-glass window. Miller was a champion improviser, and if his play isn't what you might call good (meaning focused, involving, infectious), it's still exuberant. He outfits a melodramatic love triangle between two women and a lowlife named Harry with surreal giant rats, Smokey the Bear, a life-after-death scene, a beer vendor (who sells brew to the audience at $2 a can), the aforementioned talking bird, and routines lifted straight from vaudeville.

The two women are a whore named Jackie and Harry's ex-pregnant ex-girlfriend, Jeanie. Harry avoids Jeanie after she has an abortion; he meets Jackie in a bar, learns that she's a prostitute, and becomes her pimp. When Jackie threatens his livelihood by planning to set up a manicure studio, Harry complains and finally hits her. In the meantime Jeanie is searching for Harry with a pistol, which, like all traditional stage guns, eventually goes off.

The story is threadbare, but it's not the story that makes the play fun. It's the swirling, chaotic scenes with Keystone Kops and Smokey the Bear (who chops down a tree), with a midget doughnut man and a magnificently tacky myna bird, with hip background music ranging from Lou Reed to Louis Armstrong, with a Russian doctor and a long-haired hoodlum who steals a cream pie from an improbably old Fed Ex courier and throws the pie in the doctor's face. Frank Potter plays the hoodlum, and he's just as hilariously sullen here as he was in American Buffalo last January. The midget is Matthew Razis, who once worked for George Lucas as an Ewok: He makes an excellent doughnut man, though as Jeanie's friend Ronald he sounds like he's reading an imaginary teleprompter. Chloe Taylor has one good speech as Jackie, telling Harry about her past and trying to explain how she wants a different life: "No, I don't want you to move out," she says wearily, rolling her eyes. "I'd miss you. You're like part of the furniture."

But it's Ian Hirsch who does the real acting. He was good too in American Buffalo and he's so well-cast as Harry -- with a growly Bronx-ish accent and apelike hairy arms -- that he's at serious risk of being typecast as some kind of lowlife. His best moment the night I saw him came during a monologue about Harry's background in metaphysics. Harry listed all the philosophers he'd heard of, and an audience member in the front row, possibly fooled by the beer into thinking Just Wild About Harry was an interactive play, started to yell encouragement -- "Schiller! Spinoza!" Jackie asked Harry how he knew these esoteric things, and Hirsch, straight-faced, improvised: "I used to room with the guy in the front row," he said. "He was a real psycho." Henry Miller would have been proud.

-- Michael Scott Moore

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