Stage

Dancing the Talk
Erratic Eroticism. Choreography by Huckabay McAllister Dance. At ODC Theater Performance Gallery, 3153 17th St. (at South Van Ness), Nov. 14-22. Call 863-9834.

London's DV8 Physical Theater, at Center for the Arts three weeks ago, created a momentary lapse in the usual catatonic response to art here. Though you hear an occasional "Wow" or other mumbling from some forgetful bohemian, most of the time people closet their responses to an art experience, as if speaking about it would dislodge it from their hearts. When DV8's Enter Achilles, its bar full of men passing time in a purgatory of brutality and macho innocence, got people talking, you knew it had done something huge. Artistic Director Lloyd Newson and company bring to dance what the Method brought to drama: It's not what they did but how. DV8 loosened the protocol of silence surrounding art, particularly "high" art, by clarifying its own form, dance-theater.

Huckabay McAllister Dance's Erratic Eroticism, which ran two weekends at ODC Theater, reminds me of DV8. The local company's eight short pieces find desire in odd places: a kitschy trailer park, a demented and delectable Victorian tea party, an incest-bound nest of Brontës, etc. Choreographers Jenny McAllister and Emma Lou Huckabay share DV8's tendency to generate drama out of setting and character, rather than music or movement. And, as in most of DV8's show, the characters don't talk; their bodies do. At their most compelling, the dances in Erratic Eroticism speak the dialect of common interaction, distending or stripping down recognizable gesture to reveal obscured meanings.

In McAllister's "Tastes Like Chicken (Just Another Afternoon at the Trailer Park)," four dancers (Knute, Blane Ashby, Gary Grisham, and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) stake territory by lounging -- riding rival deck chairs with chests puffed out. When the two women sidle up to tongue each other's face and neck and melt their chests together like honey, their intimacy still has traces of competitive hostility. "You want luscious?" they seem to demand. "I'll give you luscious." Returning to their chairs, they pull the backs forward with a hard yank and shudder.

The choreographers' keen sense of behavioral gesture, however, is competing with other strengths -- their love of the motion and emotion in music and of certain kinds of movement. Sometimes the music, perfectly calibrating the tone of each piece, directs them; sometimes it's the desire to swoop largely through space -- arms splayed like wings, torsos keening. Musical sensitivity and kinetic pleasure serve often and well as dance's core. But when they're forced to compete with common experience and gesture as the movement's driving force, you get a muddle. In "Brontë," a dancer shifts suddenly from a torso-spiraling pirouette to a plain old walk upstage, where he does another fancy-dancy spin. What's motivating the action? A tower of Babel -- too many languages at once -- sounds loud but feels empty. We can assimilate only so many idioms; choosing the ones that most engage us, we wait through the rest.

DV8's recent visit made clear that a hyphenated art, like dance-theater, requires just as narrow-minded an intent as "purer" forms. Dance-theater is not a muddled hybrid; it binds its two disciplines in precise relation. DV8's work takes its shape from theater and uses movement as its language. The company's dramas settle in a pedestrian and common world; their dance-language, then, is necessarily colloquial. Partial and repetitive, full of elision, omission, and ambiguity, DV8's movement speaks etymologies like it's no big deal -- illuminating what we are rooted in and what is rooted in us. Huckabay McAllister Dance has abundant gifts; it has yet to choose between them. I hope it does choose -- absorbing itself in what compels it the most and subordinating everything else. It won't look like DV8, but it could share the cutting purity that drew audiences out of themselves earlier this month.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

The Age of Calculation
The Heiress. Adapted by Ruth and Augustus Goetz from Henry James' Washington Square. Directed by David Wheeler. Starring Ken Ruta, Katherine Conklin, Anne Torsiglieri, and Robert Parsons. At Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck) in Berkeley, through Jan. 2. Call (510) 845-4700.

Henry James failed as a playwright, probably because his storytelling habits were long-winded and subtle rather than brisk and direct. The movie version out now of his short novel Washington Square sprawls the way his narrative does, leaving itself time for several layers of the original story; but the play The Heiress is an adaptation of the same book written with a taut feeling for suspense. (It opened on Broadway in 1947; the Olivia de Havilland movie came two years later.) It changes the story, which explains the different title, and it doesn't let you relax with the idea that you know what's going to happen until the final second.

All of The Heiress takes place in the parlor of Dr. Austin Sloper's expensive and fashionable New York town house -- Washington Square in the 1850s wasn't a heroin market, as it is now. His daughter Catherine is an overprotected daddy's girl about 20 years old, nervous and trusting, held back in "the age of innocence," as her father puts it, and not ready for "the age of calculation" -- or, in her father's mind, men either. In the new movie this exposition is pasted artlessly on the screen, but at the Berkeley Rep it's just there, plainly, in the way Ken Ruta and Anne Torsiglieri play Dr. Sloper and Catherine. Ruta struts around in his waistcoat and jutting beard with pure 19th-century authority; even though Sloper becomes a villain, he's not an unsympathetic man. You understand his impatience because Catherine is so awkward, and Torsiglieri does the awkwardness so perfectly you want to shake Sloper for not seeing that she's daddy-struck because of the way he acts.

She falls in love, of course, and her father suspects that the man is a rootless gold-digger who wants Catherine for the family money. It can't be for Catherine's charm, in his harsh opinion, and when this opinion slips out, Catherine finally begins to mature. What's left uncertain in the play is whether Morris Townsend is really after Catherine's money -- the script gives this a new suspense -- and whether Catherine will take him back after a long separation that gives her father a chance to die. Robert Parsons, as Townsend, is the only clumsy actor on the stage, but since his character is so selfishly brash, the effect doesn't seem out of place. The show belongs to Torsiglieri, though, who works out the change in Catherine's character with a careful, natural conviction, seeming just as unconsciously charming as a daddy-bound girl as she does as a cold grown woman, hurt but wise, heiress to her father's cruelty.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Sax and Violence
Suicide in Bb. By Sam Shepard. Directed by Val Hendrickson. Starring Kelvin Han Yee, Sean San Jose, John Robb, Josh Jones, and Scheherazade Stone. Presented by 3rdSet at the Justice League, 628 Divisadero (at Hayes), Nov. 11-19. Call 440-0409.

The saxophone can screech, like a woman screaming or a fire siren late at night. Music that wanders out of its ordered system, back into pure sound and noise, can be annoying and even maddening -- the very reasons some people don't like jazz. Jazz flirts with disorder; the free-associating creative process is laid bare as an exposed bone. As Louis the detective in Suicide in Bb says, "All this free-form stuff is disturbing to my inner depths. It leaves me feeling nauseous. Like I'm going to throw everything up. Everything that's ever come into me."

Sam Shepard's Suicide in Bb is an experimental piece, working erratic jazz rhythms into a crime story. In the script, jazz is more metaphor than stage presence; but in the compelling new 3rdSet production that closed last week at the Justice League, music is the centerpiece. A quartet consumes most of the stage and jazz flows throughout the night; melodic jazz to set a mood alternating with erratic and improvisational jazz reminding the audience the play is about an artist on the brink of insanity. Balancing text and music, form and improvisation, the 3rdSet show develops its subject with rare perfection.

And Suicide in Bb is a show that could go horribly wrong. The layout is an invitation for musicians to act (and actors to play music), and the story defies logic: Two detectives, Louis and Pablo, enter a composer's apartment to investigate his death, but are driven mad by ghostly screams and echoes of the dead musician's work. Nor does 3rdSet try to make rational sense of an absurd play; slipping into the form, the musicians mix it up with the actors. One character, Laureen, is eliminated, her lines scattered among the players; at another point, percussionist Josh Jones leaves his place behind his drums to become the main character.

Niles the composer is supposed to be dead, but that doesn't stop him from returning to his apartment, his companion Paulette in tow, for a game of deadly dress-up. When Niles is costumed as a cowboy, Paulette shoots an arrow at him, but hits Louis the flatfoot. The sleuths haven't just entered Niles' apartment, they've invaded his psychic space.

Just as the detectives' rational defenses are broken down by entering the musician's "space," the performance's milieu -- waitresses circulating, graffiti art on the walls, the jazz combo playing -- wipes out our stale, seats-bolted-to-the-floor expectations about theater. Sean San Jose and Kelvin Han Yee are dead on as the uptight detectives thrust into the irrational world of the artist. As scuzzy saxophonist Petrone, John Robb is so impeccably cast you would think he'd sprung straight from Shepard's imagination. But vocalist Scheherazade Stone is the scene stealer; a vision of Josephine Baker in vintage gowns, she drifts effortlessly between her character Paulette and her place in the band.

The show ends no closer to a clean resolution than it begins. Niles appears in the real space of his apartment and confronts the men pursuing him. As the detectives slap on the cuffs, a voice-over fills the room, "Am I inside you right now? ... Driving you berserk? Creating explosions? Destroying your ancient patterns? ... Or am I just like you?" The verbal rhetoric fades with the lights, and at the curtain call the jazz starts up again.

-- Julie Chase

Swirlywhirly
Hurlyburly. By David Rabe. Directed by Louis Parnell. Starring Parnell, James Cunningham, David McNees, Deborah Taylor, Michele McHall, Chloe Taylor, and Tony Abou-Ganim. At the Actors Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), through Dec. 22. Call 567-6088.

David Rabe's Hurlyburly is as glaring and mean as L.A. itself, populated with morally absent Hollywood types who vacuum up cocaine and pot smoke like carpet dust and treat women like trading commodities. The set, at least in the current Actors Theater production, shows the kind of modern '80s interior that has always given me a headache -- white walls with miniblinds, cold metal stereo racks and a black leather couch, airbrushed art -- and the characters all have a matching flatness, a plain and glaring self-ignorance. From Oedipus Rex on, of course, self-ignorance has driven great theater, but Hurlyburly wallows in it, more or less the way the '80s did.

The story deals with Eddie and Mickey, casting directors who live in the same house and compete with each other for women, and their friend Phil, a high-voltage, struggling actor who's just screwed up his marriage. They argue incessantly. They go on long, coke-fueled rants that are either funny or grating, depending on who delivers them, and sometimes they scream all at once so that sections of the play sound like movements of discordant jazz, noisy and confusing but carefully shaped. These rants -- this confusion -- is the hook for the play's title. Tony Abou-Ganim rants beautifully as Phil, blowing in and out of the house like a hurricane of manic energy; in one scene he nearly hits Eddie because he's so frustrated with his marriage and because he believes, somehow, that Eddie doesn't respect him. When he calms down, we realize he barely knew he was shouting. "Sometimes I'm out in the rain," he says, "and I don't know it's rainin'."

But no play can sustain this kind of energy for 2 1/2 hours. The other main characters, Eddie and Mickey, are not just unlikable but woodenly played; on opening night James Cunningham, as Eddie, kept stumbling over his lines, as if maybe that pot they were smoking was real. Louis Parnell and Chloe Taylor are both engaged and sharp as a would-be Hollywood deal-maker and the hitchhiking blonde he brings to the house for no reason besides sex ("This is a perfectly viable piece of ass I brought you here," says Parnell's character, Artie, with excellent ugly crassness) -- and Taylor helps close the play in a nice calm scene with Eddie -- but good patches can't focus a script, especially when it seems as bloated and satisfied with its own unruliness as Hurlyburly. Somebody needed to edit Rabe. His mess of story lines and almost-realized themes may be part of the point of his play, but wearing out the audience is not the same as throwing satirical light on a weary and self-baffled culture.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Gaelic Fantasia
Balor. By Macnas. Directed and choreographed by Rod Goodall. Music composed by John Dunne. At Theater Artaud, 450 Florida (at 17th St), Oct. 29-Nov. 2. Call 621-7797.

In 1988, at Dublin's Millennium Celebration, a 60-foot Gulliver washed up on the beach and was borne through the streets in an elaborate five-day parade by a hitherto little-known theater troupe from Galway, Ireland. Since then, Macnas, which means "joyful, exuberant abandon" in Gaelic, has built an international career with its wordless high-octane spectacles celebrating ancient epic themes. Balor, the final installation of a mythic trilogy, enacts a 60-minute fairy tale about Balor of the Evil Eye, a Cyclopean tyrant who imprisons his only daughter to prevent the prophetic fulfillment that his grandson will someday kill him.

Director/choreographer Rod Goodall displays a keen knack for compressing long narratives into vivid symbolic acts. For example, when Balor, a Darth Vader-esque villain, discovers that his wife is pregnant, his clutch of snarling bare-breasted crones descend on her and induce magical labor. The child turns luminous in the womb and the baby is born a spotlight shining into the audience; it then transforms into a puppet-child that the crones imprison in a tower, nurse briefly, and raise from the cradle into a fully grown woman. All this takes no more than a couple of minutes of deftly focused light, smoke, gesture, and sound.

The plot continues, careening forward at an MTV clip. The daughter escapes, falls in love, and has sex with a man from the Tuatha De Danaan, a tribe laboring under Balor's cruel yoke. She then returns to her tower, where she gestates -- upchucking some neon orange substance (my favorite moment of the show) -- and gives birth. Balor discovers the baby, and throws it into the ocean, a billowing blue cloth that fills the stage like a punctured blimp.

Unfortunately, such moments of emotional focus are few and far between. With ingenious agitprop, high-tech bells and whistles, and a concentrated physical vocabulary, the group achieves the glossy grandeur of stop-action cinema but sacrifices much of the intimacy of live theater. From Balor's parachute-sized black cape to the extravagant neo-gothic set fitted with trapdoors, smoke-spewing pipes, and explosives, the high production values are impressive, but they consistently distract us from the show's transcendent potential.

It's too difficult to descry the meaning of the story, which finally eluded this eager viewer. Who cares about a guy with an evil eye, a band of frolicking peasants, and a fish-boy armed with the destiny to save a nation from tyranny? Does it have any relationship to Irish struggles today? If not, is there a reason that this myth might resonate for any modern audience?

The beauty of groups like Macnas, whose work grows from a tradition of non-narrative street spectacles, is that they think huge. When they create work in a traditional theater, they take full advantage of the magical tools of light, sound, and set. Unfortunately, they also sometimes neglect the theater's inherent role as a frame for emotional and intellectual exchange. Director Goodall has mastered visual imagery and movement storytelling on a grand scale, now all he needs to do is discover those stories urgent enough to bring soul to his vision.

-- Carol Lloyd

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