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Deaths in the Family
Flesh and Blood. By Elizabeth Dewberry. Directed by Maria Mazer. Starring Ronnie D. Blair, Linda Ayres-Frederick, Molly Goode, and Patricia Silver. At the Phoenix Theater, 301 Eighth St. (at Howard), through Dec. 7. Call 621-4423.

The other recently opened Southern family drama is a kind of anti-Streetcar, an emetic for people who are sick of Gothic tragedy. Flesh and Blood seems to say, "All right. You want sex and sisters and dirty secrets? How about this?" It's probably not intentional. Elizabeth Dewberry's script seems earnest enough, and the actors do their best with it, but something's gone wrong when the most you can say about a sex-motivated sibling murder story is that it makes you laugh. The laughter is earned, because the writing has real wit, but the drama gets diffused among three or four situations that would make Southern Gothic plays of their own, including an absent father who's been killed by bad potato salad.

Flesh and Blood takes place in the suburban kitchen of a family of women in the hours after Crystal's marriage breaks up at the altar. Her sister Charlotte and their mother want to know what happened. Crystal is a glamorously dressed, libidinous woman with a headache. She doesn't want to tell anyone why her wedding fell apart, and her mother insists on hoping it's just a temporary problem. Mama fills the play's "Queen of Denial" role: She won't admit to herself that she fed rotten potato salad to her husband, on purpose, several years before. She's played a little woodenly by Patricia Silver. Charlotte, the good sister (she has a husband and kids), is played as a compelling prude by Linda Ayres-Frederick, who's best with her ranting monologues; but Molly Goode holds up the show as Crystal, with a funny, wide-eyed, falling-apart exasperation. When it comes out that Crystal has screwed Charlotte's husband, Goode takes on a cringing manner that seems equal parts angst and lust, which is not a bad way to describe the play itself.

Charlotte's husband is Judd (Ronnie Blair), who leaves for most of the play to get Kentucky Fried Chicken. One of the funniest scenes is the chicken meal after Crystal and Judd's bombshell revelation, when everyone feels too awkward to speak. Mama chitchats about Charlotte's job in a cancer ward, and goes on hysterically about the half-dozen other horrible ways three people could have chosen to die in the ward the previous week. "Well, they didn't," says Charlotte. "They died ah cancer." Uncomfortable moment. "I'm sure that's best," says Mama. But the heart of the play is tragic, something the playwright hasn't quite grasped. Maybe Dewberry had too much fun writing the script and forgot it was going to end in blood. Because the death scene doesn't work; it's too sudden and too pat. Flesh and blood kill each other every day, of course, and probably for the same reasons, but Dewberry hasn't committed the soul of these passions to paper.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Climbing the Walls
Vertical Dance: Peregrine Dreams, Urban Landscape. Choreography by Amelia Rudolph. Presented by Project Bandaloop at the New Main Library, Fulton (at Larkin), Oct. 24 & 30. Call (510) 654-4728.

With expansive summers, slight winters, and green thinking as common as red-light running, the Bay Area is a live hive of outdoor dance. The foundation of on-site performance is our reflexive responses to specific locales: What images do an empty lot, back alley, or skyscraper conjure up when you pass it on your way to somewhere else? But the thrill of the dances involves transcending the pedestrian. The pieces run to the wild side, atop 6-foot-high stilts, where fire escapes dangle bodies, moving cars shake off acrobats, and a high wall becomes a vertical ballroom. Implicit in the works' injury-prone acts -- and occasionally stated outright -- is the notion that stretching the limits of the body expands the spirit too; watching boundaries being burst enlarges us.

On a bright, windy afternoon late last month, I joined about a hundred people at San Francisco's New Main Library to witness the East Bay Project Bandaloop's 30-minute rappel-dance from roof to ground down the library's sheer wall. Watching them, I became smaller, not larger -- a wee speck overwhelmed by fear. While a voice gliding above trance music spoke about a human inclination to fly, I was thinking about our inclination to die when dropped from 100 feet onto bare cement.

As the program noted, Bandaloop Artistic Director Amelia Rudolph's Vertical Dance: Peregrine Dreams, Urban Landscape celebrates the endangered Peregrine falcon. And if the dance had simply stopped there, emulating these beautiful birds, I could have swallowed my fear and enjoyed the aerialists' angelic descent. Rigged like rock climbers and dressed in white, with ribbons of fabric fluttering from their wide-spanned arms, the performers (Heather Baer, Chris Clay, Karen Elliot, Suzanne Gallo, Peter Mayfield, and Rudolph) pushed off the wall to fly toward us like slow-mo flurries of snow, flatten themselves to the sky, or touch head to foot in luxurious backward arcs.

They would have done the falcons proud. But in claiming their performance was more than an homage to rare birds, they ended up making it less. Through much of the piece, a voice laurie-andersoned: "We think we are separate/ ... box ourselves in/ ... in control know it all/ But we are the wild body of nature." And later: "They build buildings: fear ... under chop of stone." It turns out Bandaloop's flying is not just an emulation of birds' freedom but an assertion that if we only got in touch with our natural spirit, we would fly too. Fear of flying is a byproduct of the desire to control one's environment. These New Age sentiments contradict the spectacle's evident control-freaked underpinnings: rigging as carefully designed as a corporate takeover. More importantly, they forget that fear -- a bothersome instinct, yes -- gives spiritual ascendance its beauty.

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