The Burns-ish touch in Civil Sex is a series of acted-out transcriptions from interviews that playwright Brian Freeman conducted last summer with some of Rustin's living friends. Freeman plays a few of these people -- like Jonathan Brice, a retired piano player, and Ralph DiGhia, an old member of the War Resisters League -- with so much warmth and humor you get the impression that political activism was a far more colorful thing in the '50s and '60s than it is now.

The play's most engaging scene shows Rustin debating Malcolm X on a 1961 radio show. Rustin argues against Malcolm's separatism by sarcastically asking which 10 or 12 of the 50 states he expects the government to hand over to black America, and Malcolm counters -- both in the radio show and, you might say, in the long selective gaze of history -- with the unanswerable charge that Rustin's head has been "colonized" by the white man. Something about this scene unearths Rustin's essence, making a lot of the sexual history, never mind Strom Thurmond, seem gratuitous. Rustin thought his own blackness and queerness were just aspects of a large and complex personality, and the sharpest impression left by Civil Sex is the distance the American left has retreated from this ideal.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights. By Gertrude Stein. Starring Richard Ciccarone, Nina Gold, Liam Vincent, and Sommer Ulrickson. At Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 16th Street), through Nov. 30. Call 626-3311.

Maybe it was inevitable for local experimental theater to get around to Gertrude Stein. Some eminent writer, I think Henry James, once said Stein "doesn't really know the meanings of words," and a few minutes with her writing should convince the most casual reader that sound was more important to her than sense. This folds perfectly into the current obsession with Anne Bogart, who gets credited or mentioned in close to 50 percent of the theater programs I collect. Bogart has been working on acting techniques that say more with movement than they do with words. So why not fit them together? Why not do a Stein play in the Bogart style, full of careful movement, nonsense rhymes, and a near-total lack of concern for story? It seems amazing this hasn't been done before.

Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights is Stein's cubist retelling of the Faust legend from 1938 that tweaks the desperate doctor, the poodle, the heroine Gretchen, and Mephistopheles into a pastiche of infectious rhyme and stilted action. It splits Mephistopheles into two characters -- Mephisto and Mephista -- and shows Faust agonizing over a very modern deal he's made with the devil: the exchange of his soul for electric light. Director Kenn Watt and his Fifth Floor Productions have added elements of Japanese trash culture (like a pink-jelly backpack on Mephista, and footage of Japanese action flicks on background TV screens) to make things multicultural; other modern touches include a punk song that Gretchen -- here she's called Marguerite-Ida-and-Helena-Anabel -- sings after getting bitten by a viper. All these elements add up to a hilariously anarchic hour and a half of theater if you have a stomach for this kind of thing.

Watt refers to the famous Gustav GrYndgens film version of Faust by painting the two Mephistopheles characters' faces white with a dark band across the eyes, and by giving them trapdoors in the stage to emerge from. (GrYndgens played the most notorious Faust in German history; the movie was performed on a dark, trapdoored stage.) The Dog, played by John Flanagan, looks less like a poodle than like Lou Reed in his Rock 'n' Roll Animal phase, with a painted face, bare chest, and black leather collar. The cultural references are everywhere; they're also the show's most ineradicable weakness, because Dr. Faustus is too derivative to stand on its own. Underneath all the trash-culture fun, Stein's script is so oblique you really have to know the Faust legend to see how clever she's being. This is both avant-garde and thoroughly elitist. But then so was Stein; and Fifth Floor can't be faulted for doing her fable of the 20th century with a gleefully fin-de-siecle twist.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Mayan Ruins
Xibalba. By Mobius Operandi. Directed by Jim Cave. Instrumental sculpture by Oliver DiCicco. Costumes by Laura Hazlett. Paintings by Carlos Loarca. Book and lyrics by Pamela Winfrey. At Somar, 934 Brannan (at Eighth Street), through Nov. 22. Call 552-2131.

You've probably heard it before: Art can be about anything. If the execution measures up, no subject matter is too vast, too small, too private, or too political. But the crushingly self-referential subject matter of Xibalba, a new multimedia spectacle by Mobius Operandi, proves that notion wrong. The show is half walk-through installation, half staged spectacle, carrying the audience through a series of theatrical environments in the 30,000-square-foot Somar space for the first 20 minutes and then unfolding another hour-plus of proscenium presentation. Based on the Mayan scripture called Popul Vuh, Xibalba takes its name from a mythical nether world where the gods make decisions about the future. The play employs Xibalba as a metaphor for the creative process -- specifically, the work of the show's visual artist, Guatemalan-born painter Carlos S. Loarca. Yes, you guessed it: The show is about one of its own collaborators' artistic process.

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