Stage

Children of the New Rome
Schoolhouse Rock Live! Produced and directed by Scott Evan Guggenheim. Starring Nicol Foster, Jorge Garza, Byron Gregory, Shannon Martin, Shannon Miner, and Ken Stegmiller. At the Alcazar Theater, 650 Geary (at Jones), through Nov. 30. Call 441-4042.

Schoolhouse Rock started in 1973 -- around the beginning of the end of what Gore Vidal likes to call the "American Empire" -- when a frustrated ad executive noticed that his son was retaining all the lyrics to the Rolling Stones' repertoire but almost none of his math homework. The executive set out to produce one catchy educational song about the number three, and the result was a series of droll Saturday morning cartoons that gave whitewashed lessons in history, grammar, math, and American politics. "Elbow Room" sang cheerily about westward expansion and the future colonization of the moon -- "It's the moon or bust/ In God we trust" -- and "I'm Just a Bill" brightly explained to the children of the new Rome how a bill becomes law in their fair and honest republic.

These kids are turning out in force for Schoolhouse Rock Live!, a touring musical that might remind you more of Zoom! than of Schoolhouse Rock. It's not a cartoon and doesn't even try to improve on the cartoons; it's just a bunch of people in bright shirts, dancing and singing. They wear head-mounted microphones and keep earnest, happy looks on their faces, treating audience members like they haven't aged a day since 1975. The lame excuse for a story to hold the songs together has to do with a teacher who feels nervous on his first day of class. To help him, Dina, George, Dori, Joe, and Shulie pop out of his television and claim to be "all the ideas" in his head. (Not just the cast but the whole audience is implicated. We wouldn't want any snarky comments about how teacher has only five ideas.) So SRL! is a conceptual piece.

The songs come in no particular order. There's "Mother Necessity," about American inventors; "Sufferin' Till Suffrage," about the women's movement; "The Preamble," about liberty and the Constitution; "Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla," about pronouns; and "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here," about the suffix "ly." The singing is expert, but the humor is totally lacking, which still doesn't keep the audience from slurping up the nostalgia. I'm not sure what I expected. I thought the show might have a high camp value, even real potential for irony or at least cleverness; but ABC must have refused to allow any toying with the product, so the result is a lumbering retread of cheesy songs that were better the first time around, on TV. (Apparently Schoolhouse Rock IS back on TV, so I recommend getting up early some Saturday morning instead of shelling out money for this.) What's even worse is the way the audience behaves, milking its own enthusiasm for songs that are absolutely rote, screaming orgasmically like a game-show crowd. "Oh my god, this is so great! Isn't it cool how these songs bring us back to a time when we didn't know what Nixon was doing?" Sorry, no, it's not.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Harm's Way
Death and the Maiden. By Ariel Dorfman. Directed by Persephonie Saucier. Starring Saucier, Brian James, and Mike Mulligan. Presented by Alchemy Arts Theater at the Jewel Theater, 655 Geary (at Turk), through Nov. 2. Call 567-3005.

Death and the Maiden was written in Chile just after Gen. Pinochet was stripped of power, which is to say just after a long reign of tyranny and terror. The people were trying to adjust to democracy again and the victims of the old regime were living side by side with their torturers. Ariel Dorfman sketched his play from this milieu in 1990 after moving back to Chile from a long self-exile, and the script eventually got produced as a film by Roman Polanski.

The version playing at the Jewel Theater right now isn't set in Chile, at least not strictly. Under "Setting" the program gives a few choices:

"A) Anywhere a dictatorship has inflicted acts of violent torture and terror on hu-man beings. B) The tormented mind of Paulina Salas. C) The Beach House of Paulina and Gerardo Escobar. D) All or none of the above."

I think the idea is to make the play universal, but it's distracting. The story is about the Escobars. On the same evening Gerardo is appointed by the country's new president to investigate old state crimes, his car breaks down, and he receives a ride home from a certain Dr. Roberto Miranda. Paulina Escobar (nee Salas) is convinced by the sound of his voice that Miranda is the same doctor who blindfolded and raped her in a military detention center 15 years before (to the strains of Schubert's Death and the Maiden). Miranda spends the night at the Escobars' beach house, and while he's asleep Paulina clubs him unconscious with the heel of a pistol, duct-tapes him to a chair, and gags him by stuffing her warm underwear in his mouth and strapping his face with tape.

This is powerful stuff, vulgar and harsh but with a real human story. For the rest of the play Paulina tries to extract a confession, but the mystery stays intriguingly unresolved. The plot gets a little Gothic toward the end, with revelation piled on revelation, but the basic drama is strong, and Brian James suffers so convincingly as Dr. Miranda you don't want to make him sit there, duct-taped, while you relax during intermission. What doesn't work is the relationship between Paulina and Gerardo: Persephonie Saucier and Mike Mulligan strain whenever they try to act like husband and wife; and to me the blurred setting seems to hint darkly that this catastrophe of state-run terror could happen in America. It could, of course, but it hasn't, and the effect is to cast a science-fiction pall on an otherwise decent play. Dorfman tried to pare a story about victim-cum-victimizer down to its universal essence, and he pretty well succeeded, so I think it would have been stronger to ground the play in its native country, where these things actually happened.

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