Love Bites
Vampire Dreams. By Suzy McKee Charnas. Starring Penny Benda, Nick Scoggin, Esther Feuerstein, and J.J. White. At Bindlestiff Studio, 185 Sixth St. (at Howard), through Dec. 6. Call 974-1167.

As a kernel for a story, putting a vampire in a psychologist's office is not a bad idea. Once I saw a version of Dracula that incorporated a fat German psychologist trying and failing to cure the Count's black heart; the idea was that her Freudian education gave her no understanding of evil. But the show also seemed to realize that the idea of a psychologist treating a vampire is basically absurd, and taking itself too seriously would amount to sudden death; so the play came off as insightful and funny. Bindlestiff Studio's Vampire Dreams has neither of these virtues. The script is based on a short, Nebula Award-winning novel called The Unicorn Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas. The Nebula Award is given to science-fiction and fantasy books, and Vampire Dreams has all the romantic, blood-gorged overseriousness that makes the readership of those books drop off after puberty.

The story takes place in a sober psychologist's office with a detail from one of the medieval Unicorn Tapestries hanging in the background. (Rocky Heck's set, like most of the sets at Bindlestiff, is good-looking and darkly tasteful.) Dr. Floria Landauer (Penny Benda) is a blond New York psychologist with a cold, reasoning mind; Dr. Edward Lewis Weyland (Nick Scoggin) is her new client, an aging, tweed-coated university professor who looks not unlike Samuel Beckett and feels troubled by his uncontrollable animal tendency to hunt women and gay men he finds at cultural happenings. Both characters are stereotypes, suffering from the sort of TV-worthy problems an author who's never known either a psychologist or a professor would saddle them with. Floria wonders if being an analyst is "all there is"; Ed at one point moans about growing old in the academy, with nothing but staff meetings, trashy affairs with undergraduates, and "summer vacation jaunts" to look forward to. Breaking out of this academic monotony is supposed to be the reason he hunts, but there's a blithe ignorance working here that systematically ruins the show, because the characters don't seem real.

Some suspense is squeezed from the fact that Floria doesn't believe Ed is a vampire. She thinks he's a gay man in denial. Just when you start to think this possibility might redeem the story, though, the question is settled: Ed really is a vampire. Anticlimax. But Floria also thinks he's sexy, so suspense begins to leak from the question of whether she'll breach her professional code of ethics and try to screw him. But after they finally have sex -- a passionate disaster for Floria's career, but a humanizing novelty for Ed -- and you believe the show should end, the story muddles on for half an hour more.

There are glimmers of wit. When Ed graphically describes sucking the blood from a woman's neck, Floria asks, "How did you feel about your victim -- as a person?" He stares at her carefully. "She was food." But most of the play feels unfinished and limp, as if the author were still questing for what she really means, on the audience's precious time.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Lord of the Dance
The Mark Morris Dance Group presents The Hard Nut Dec. 13-14 and 19-21 at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. Call (510) 642-9988.

He's been crowned "the bad boy of modern dance" by people who, apparently, haven't seen much. Critics have hailed him as "the greatest living American choreographer," come to save dance from the politics and minimalism and talk and mysticism and pedestrian everydayness that the '60s brought in. But even when his admirers sound like the dance world's Ralph Reeds, Mark Morris is easy to love. His dances do what great art always does, regardless of idiom. Through vital idiosyncrasy, they communicate something we've forgotten we wanted to know.

Almost every year for the past several, the Mark Morris Dance Group has frequented Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall; for the 1997-98 season, it's practically moved in. In late October, the company presented local premieres and repertory work; it returns in June for Morris' production of Rameau's comic opera Platee; and, with an exclusive two-week run of The Hard Nut, a Nutcracker-cum-Ice Storm, Morris and company will be joining us to celebrate a vision of the holidays that for once feels familiar.

Choreographed during the Morris Dance Group's three-year residency at Belgium's national opera house (1988-91), The Hard Nut is a deeply American work. While he remains true to Tchaikovsky's score -- every single note of it -- Morris sets his Christmas in a postwar America of homey, commercialist kitsch where an awakening, pre-AIDS naughtiness prevails. The traditional Nutcracker Christmas party is here transformed into a cocktail chaos: The adults are too busy getting it on with each other's husbands and wives to pay much attention to the kids, who pass the time watching TV and creating little havocs of their own. Dog Boy cartoonist Charles Burns -- comic art's David Lynch -- conceived the set. The scary blandness of Burns' black-and-white op art Christmas presents childhood as an opaque danger zone. What's terrifying is how tawdry and limited everything is.

Until you grow up, Morris suggests. The Hard Nut resurrects the original coming-of-age story that traditional ballet versions have subsumed under a sugar high. Growing up in Morris' take is about discovering the human glow and dimension within seeming flatness. The protagonists Marie and Nutcracker find a world that, like an enormous budding flower, opens and opens; the already grown-ups, on the other hand, shrink as often as they grow. All this reveals itself at Christmas. As Ira Glass, producer of the radio show This American Life, once pointed out, "Christmas is the time when everybody is who they normally are, but more so."

Meeting the choreographer in his Berkeley hotel room, I found him both more confrontational and more guarded than his stage persona, which is at once precise and magnanimous. Morris, famous for saying what he thinks, confided straight out what he thought of my kind: "Journalism -- it's kind of a parasite job." Now, though he still wants the public to be nettlesome -- "If you go to see something bad, it's your responsibility to boo or leave" -- he says he's learned to "hate things more silently."

His talk still sounds like a lesson in cutting the crap to me. About how to become a choreographer, Morris says, "If you want to put on a concert, you will. Very often I find people who have the letterhead and the logo and the Web site and the grant, but they forgot that you have to make something up." On the subject of "gay art," he declares: "The special-interestedness of queers is very fashionable right now, and I think it's abhorrent. There was a fabulous Seinfeld where Kramer marches in the Gay Pride parade and he won't wear an AIDS ribbon and these sissy guys beat him up. I'm gay, but it doesn't mean I want to join the club of official gay behavior." He laughs, "I'm against that."

Many iconoclasts are great talkers and lousy listeners, too tuned in to their own "inner voice" to hear you. But when Morris listens, the slight challenge in his eyes and mouth defuses. It's what one would expect from a choreographer who makes dances out of listening. Morris begins his choreography with the music and score, which he studies long before he meets with the troupe to make the dance itself. The way Morris' dancers cluster or separate, how their arms swoosh or ornament, and the dance's ephemeral story and emotional resonance derive wholly from its particular score.

Even The Hard Nut -- based on a story so tired and abused it just begged to be revamped -- was motivated by the score. "The music made me do it," Morris confesses. "It's Tchaikovsky at the peak of his powers as a fabulist and an orchestrator. [But] nobody can listen to it anymore. It's played way too much and danced to badly and used to get you to buy everything you can imagine. The music becomes something you can't even bear to hear, which is one reason I chose to do it. It's actually exquisitely beautiful: It's magic."

During that period when he listens to a score over and over again, is he visualizing the music? "I don't visualize anything!" Morris exclaims. "After studying the score for a long time, I come into the studio. Everybody's waiting to learn something and I announce that I have no ideas. And then we go to work."

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Telling "Tales"
"The Knight's Tale." By Geoffrey Chaucer, translated by J.U. Nicholson. Starring Terry Lamb and Becky Parker. Presented by Geoffrey Chaucer & Co. at the Bethany Methodist Church, 1268 Sanchez (at Clipper), Nov. 21. The company presents "The Nun's Priest's Tale" at various locations Dec. 4-14. Call 491-0818 for details.

The Canterbury Tales were imagined as an oral history -- just a group of travelers gossiping around a series of tavern tables -- so it's easy to see how a theater company might land on the idea, one drunken evening, of presenting them live onstage. But it's one thing to muse about how impressive it would be to get a performer to recite every line of "The Knight's Tale," say, acting out all the story's characters, and it's another thing altogether to find an actor with that kind of memory. But starting in late 1996, a group of actors under the name Geoffrey Chaucer & Co. has been presenting The Complete Canterbury Tales in irregular installments at venues in Berkeley and Marin, starting with "The Knight's Tale," which played in San Francisco for the first time late last month. "The Knight's Tale" gets reprised now and then because it's the first tale and includes a general introduction.

Terry Lamb plays the knight, which is to say he plays the knight playing the Theban brothers Arcite and Palamon, their enemy Theseus, his sister-in-law Emily, and four or five gods from Mount Olympus. In a green tunic and a gray garment knit to look like chain mail, he turns a bare stage with a few medieval props into a setting for an ancient Greek romance involving the brothers' feud for Emily. Arcite and Palamon, defeated noblemen under Theseus' jurisdiction, both fall in love with her while they languish in jail. When they get out, they vie to win her over; the feud climaxes in a battlefield skirmish organized by Theseus. Palamon declares his love for Emily in high-sounding speeches, and dedicates his victory to Venus; Arcite is a lustful dog who dedicates his victory to Mars. On Olympus the two gods argue with Jupiter for their partisans, and Jupiter promises that each brother will "get what he wants" -- so the story becomes a fable about fate and the soul. Chaucer's work has a sanguine good nature that lets him cast his Christian beliefs in any form, even an old pagan story like this, and since his religion isn't mired in its own icons it still feels potent and real.

Lamb's work with the material is impressive. He was last seen as Mr. Sartorius in the Aurora Theater Company's excellent version of Widowers' Houses, and this show is just as good. He's digested every line of the tale; he can recite the more than two hours' worth of verse in a natural, fluent voice and inhabit a whole gallery of colorful characters. If all the Tales are done this well, the last few should be worth seeing. J.U. Nicholson's translation from Middle English is awkward and pompous now and then, but mostly it seems to flow, so that after a few minutes the strange experience of listening to a rhyming, medieval story feels no stranger than Shakespeare.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Split Decision
Your Arms Too Short to Box With God. By Vinnette Carroll. Directed by Samuel G. LeSane. Starring Arvis Strickling Jones, James Everett Johnson, and Hollis Hayden. At the Lorraine Hansberry Theater, 620 Sutter (at Mason), through Dec. 14. Call 474-8800.

To capture a waning theatergoing audience, drama companies in the early '70s began to emulate rock shows, with booming beats, psychedelic backdrops, and scenes penned to shock. Biblical narratives were excavated and used as ready-mades to work over audiences emotionally. Andrew Lloyd Weber's Jesus Christ Superstar and John-Michael Tebelak's Godspell, for example, helped an ailing Broadway/West End with a lively theater geared toward mass consumption. In the same Jesus vein, but without all the pyrotechnics and big-dollar investment, there was Vinnette Carroll's religio-gospel musical Your Arms Too Short to Box With God, designed to bring an audience's adrenalin and emotion to the frenzy typically experienced during a Sunday gospel service.

Director Samuel G. LeSane has revived the play for San Francisco's Lorraine Hansberry Theater. In a deep, resonant voice, a preacher prompts his gold-robed choir: "I want you to go all the way back ... to a time when there's no Homer or Bart Simpson ... no Oprah." The choir responds: "Umm, uhh." The stage setting is a simple church interior: A couple of stained-glass window panes hang from the back wall, gold-painted boxes (standing for pews) fan out from stage center, and a piano and drum set sit offstage along with their players. The preacher and the dozen or so choir members enact at various points the different roles of Pilate, Mary, a blind man, a beggar, a cripple, and so forth. Matthew's story of Christ's arrival in Jerusalem -- his miracle-working, betrayal, and crucifixion -- unfolds in a call-and-response style.

Unfortunately, the old-time gospel revival feel is squashed under the weight of shallow, gimmicky theatrics. The story is cut into snippets so small it's hard to keep track of the characters or plot, even if you're already well-informed. The dance/pantomime sequences (one choir member singing the story as another acts it out) along with some attempts at comic anachronism (a character referring to Christ as "homeboy"; discussion over whether a sacred robe came from Ralph Lauren or JCPenney) don't really help flesh out character, nor do they churn up emotion. Interestingly, LeSane casts Christ not as white and effete but as a muscle-bound black man. Yet we get more of a detailed sense of Christ's pectoral striations than expressions of his inner turmoil; he speaks not a single line.

Your Arms isn't all a dud. There are moments of transcendental clarity when it most resembles a gospel performance. Offstage singer/pianist Arvis Strickling Jones single-handedly achieves this with her full-bodied, bluesy performance. I couldn't help feeling, however, that I'd rather get my outta-body experience listening to Strickling Jones at Sunday service, or while kicking it at an Oakland R&B club.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

Piece Talks
Operation No Penetration. Written and directed by Torange Yeghiazarian. Starring Pamela Beitz, Bella Ramzan-Nia, Reema Bahnasy, and Dylin Redling. Presented by the Next Stage, 1668 Bush (at Franklin). Call (510) 986-9194.

In Aristophanes' day, when the war between Athens and Sparta was destroying the fabric of society, the idea of a sex strike must have made a certain kind of sense. After all, gender roles still decreed that men were soldiers and women were wives and nary the twain should meet in the form of a GI Jane. Now, with contemporary sexuality as varietal and seasonal as a California menu, the notion that women might stop a war by saying no to the penis is harder to accept.

Still, the lure of this masterpiece of subversive humor continues to inspire new interpretations. Operation No Penetration, a contemporary adaptation of Kenneth McLeish's translation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, struggles with this mission and ultimately mangles it. First-time playwright Torange Yeghiazarian makes her initial miscalculation by broadening the play's scope from the story of a specific war between two nations to a global issue. Her Lysistrata is a Jewish New Yorker who calls together women from every nation to start a sex strike for world peace. The core group (an Iranian, a Palestinian-American, a Chinese, and a Mexican) reflects the particular perspective of the company -- Golden Thread Productions -- and its commitment to Middle Eastern issues. In this version, the women take over the Capitol and hold a celibate sit-in while men from all over the world, missiles sprouting unsheathed from their pants, rove the streets moaning. The story plods along -- shadowing the original -- with a few funny contemporary references but not enough wit to lubricate the requisite climax: peace followed by oodles of overwrought sex.

Indeed, as the evening grew longer and longer, the play became a study in how good political intentions add up to nothing in the ruthless world of art. With the exception of the music and some charming Middle Eastern dancing, the show was utterly bereft of technical prowess. The set was a crudely painted backdrop of the Capitol. The costumes, as ungraceful as those of an elementary school play, kept falling off the actors. The acting involved a lot of flouncing; performers regularly stepped on one another's lines. And the direction -- which should be an invisible art -- drew attention to itself with awkward pacing, bad blocking, and an overall lack of enunciation.

Pamela Beitz as Lysistrata, one of the few trained actors in the bunch, did her best with lots of perky energy and generous eye contact, but she had little chance of salvaging a truthful moment from the theatrical pall around her. In the end, the effect was simply sad. The carnival of lechery and blue-ball jokes failed in its profound desire to be a pro-sex, anti-war interpretation of the famed Greek satire, and succeeded in evoking only that small-screen melange of big boobs and cornball humor, Hee Haw.

-- Carol Lloyd

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