Since Brecht, many political-theater artists have traded in the common illusions of theater for more purposeful magic. Stretching beyond psychological drama to "historify" everyday life, radical theater suggests this life could be different. We're meant to think, not feel, our way through the work; we're supposed to be incited to expanded consciousness and the political action that follows. Or so the reasoning goes. Political theater makes special and contrary demands on drama; they're usually left unmet.
Oakland's all-women Dance Brigade -- a kin in spirit to the San Francisco Mime Troupe -- does meet them, but not by the usual means. Rather than rejecting the character-based pleasures of drama for consciousness-raising alienation, Krissy Keefer's dance-theater work Cinderella: A Tale of Survival plants itself in the ground that good theater and good politics share: not in issues and policies, but in the people -- whimsically unpredictable -- who make them up.
The original, pre-sanitized Cinderella was a drama of social upheaval: A besooted peasant (Cinderella) murders wicked aristocrats (stepsisters and stepmother) and takes a hard-earned place next to royalty. Keefer retains the tale's revolutionary spirit but plays with the details. Her Cinderella lives with a single mom (Nina Fichter) so lonely she hardly notices she's being cruel. The stepsisters (Karen Eliott, Suzanne Nakamura) are too mystified and self-commodifying -- chained to their bathroom scales -- to qualify as wicked or spoiled. And then there's Cindy (a role shared by Kimberly Valmore and Lena Gatchalian), who doesn't think too much of herself either. Despite the generous lessons about self-respect a whole crew of fairy godmothers gives her, she runs off with a woman-beating Prince Charming and lands in prison for knifing him. There she meets other women survivors of abuse and, once again, her guardian fairies. Sounds gruesome, doesn't it?
Well, it's not. Decked out in spunky neon tutus, the ubiquitous godmothers do more than rescue the show from dourness; they're the heart of its humanist politics. Besides their words, this gang's special language of coos and trills communicates that they live in an expansive Land of Emotion, outside the stringent requirements of capitalism and Cosmopolitan. When queen fairy Keefer goes undercover as a weight-conscious administrative assistant in order to investigate the conditions non-fairy women live under, she just can't manage to blend in. She's John Cage in a Philip Glass typing pool; she grocery shops like she actually enjoys food; and when she's supposed to be aerobicizing, she's dancing the tango with abandon and a chair.
Steeped deep in silliness, the godmothers not only get Cindy to the ball on time -- an all-women affair sans niggling stepsisters -- they teach her how to stand up, fight back, and dance. Cinderella begins as floppy and boneless as a Raggedy Ann. She repeatedly loses her step, only to be caught in a fairy's warm arms. When they hold too tight, she throws a tantrum that they guide into kung fu defense moves. Eventually, she's tossing herself high and wide -- a woman taking up space -- as they back her up.
Her godmothers can't keep Cinderella from the thrill and abuse of the prince she meets directly after the ball. But throughout the show, they make clear to us and eventually to Cinderella why a woman would want to be strong. Not just to stand on her own -- if all you get to do is stand, why bother? -- but to dance. Like Emma Goldman, who believed in impassioned politics and equally impassioned dancing, the fairies want "everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things." Bread and roses.
-- Apollinaire Scherr
New Word Order. By various authors. Directed by Zack. Starring Michael Carreiro, Jennifer Johnson, John Simpson, Shawna Spiteri, Emberley Strong, Jennifer Taggart, Valerie Weak, and Wendell Willat. Presented by Common Cultural Practice at Venue 9, 252 Ninth St. (at Folsom), Dec. 4-20. Call 626-2169.
Walking into Venue 9 at the recent New Word Order revue of avant-garde plays, audience members were handed slabs of cardboard printed with words. They were asked to hang the slabs anywhere on four clotheslines strung at the back of the stage. You could move your word, someone else's word, any word at all, until you were satisfied: It was supposed to be like the magnetic poetry games you find on certain refrigerators. Then the company of actors recited whatever the audience had written. In the program this was listed as "I. Your Prologue"; as fun as it was, it smacked of "interactive" art, with the audience participating in some sort of Burroughsian cut-up project. The results were a weird start to a show that was supposed to explore the hidden possibilities of language. On my night the clearest line read, "Has the crazy words in dog do."
The rest of the program consisted of short pieces: "I Like It to Be a Play," by Gertrude Stein, was amusing nonsense, an intensely self-conscious deconstruction-of-a-play about people on Majorca. Raymond Queneau's "Exercises in Style" was an excellent production of a script that Queneau never meant to be produced: It showed people from all over the world relating an incident on a Paris bus. A provincial British lady clutching her purse, an Irish lady and her dog, a sultry American woman oozing innuendo, a cook speaking in culinary terms, and a nerd giving a clear analysis of the situation all came off as flakes of mica reflecting fragments of whatever actually happened. And "A Dog Tries to Kiss the Sky," by Kier Peters, was set late at night in some hilly backwoods part of America, where two strangers argued about the existence of a dog that only one of them could hear. To me these were the highlights of the show, because they suggested, without dogma, the limits of language.
The three or four other pieces felt overintellectual and pretentious. One reason for their opacity is suggested by the program notes. You'd expect the program notes to an avant-garde show about language to be unusually well-written. But too much of it was blowzy: "While some readers may find Stein's work too personal to contain the communicative meaning they are habitually familiar with, she undoubtedly spurred on the search for a new relation between art and life." What the hell is "communicative meaning"? Maybe this line will help: "The logical extensions of this bias in training [of playwrights, toward everyday people in conventional plots] are the setting of standard audience expectations, a tendency to reduce a play to a two-sentence description of what it is 'about,' and a limited critical approach which favors plot summary and dispenses with philosophy."
This just isn't true. Standard playwrights, along with standard critics, put story in the foreground and philosophy -- if they have any -- in the background, because that's where philosophy belongs. Even bad writers have a vague idea that "communicative meaning" isn't all that matters; but writing directly about philosophical things can range from hopeless to pompous. That's why we tell stories; that's why there's structure in writing and critics who make sense of it. The best stories do the same work as the most important abstract words ("self," "will," "love") -- they point beyond the limits of their letters toward something unnameable and mysterious. The worst parts of New Word Order were still working up to these ideas in the most dogmatic way. Conceptually, it wasn't even as advanced as mainstream writers like David Mamet or Woody Allen; and maybe the worst criticism you can lob at an avant-garde performance is that it failed to show you anything new.
-- Michael Scott Moore