By Josh Edelson
By Chris Hall
By Jonathan Curiel
By Jonathan Curiel
By Sherilyn Connelly
By Mollie McWilliams
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Browner
Insurrection: Holding History. By Robert O'Hara. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Starring Gregory Wallace, L. Peter Callender, Anika Noni Rose, and Velina Brown. At the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), through Feb. 8. Call 749-2228.
The original book called Confessions of Nat Turner is a scholar's main source for whatever happened during the slave uprising that lasted four bloody nights in Southampton, Va., in 1831. But it was written by a white, slave-owning lawyer who said he put everything down the way Turner dictated. So what we know about this part of our past -- about any part of the past -- is filtered; and facts (as any fact-checker knows) are more like beads of mercury than solid little stones. With these ideas in mind Robert O'Hara wrote Insurrection: Holding History as a whacked and sprawling musical fantasia in a style you might call anti-Amistad. The hero, Ron, is a contemporary gay black graduate student trying to finish a thesis on Nat Turner; his 189-year-old grandfather, TJ, still alive, was actually involved in Nat Turner's rebellion. Ron learns this kind of late; on the verge of his thesis deadline they drive to Virginia, bed down for the night, and find themselves transported like Dorothy from Kansas to an 1831 plantation, where their flying bed kills the owner and gives his slaves an excuse to celebrate with a musical number evoking The Wiz.
Anti-Amistad with a vengeance: This describes only the first half-hour of the play. The rest of your evening involves an equally whacked and semihistorical buildup to the rebellion, climaxing with an attempt by Ron to quell it. He knows that the result of its blood will be the torture and murder of innocent slaves and the end of the abolitionist movement in the South. Ron's speech about blood is the first earnest scene of the play, in fact, and it's electric. His grandfather, in his younger guise, matches its passion in an answering speech about the reasons the rebellion should go on. This eloquently keeps Insurrection from warping history altogether, and in the process transforms Nat Turner -- who was probably messianic and crazed -- into a quixotic, tragic hero, rebelling against enormous odds for the distant ideal of freedom.
This play pulls O'Hara into an old debate over how Turner deserves to be remembered. William Styron wrote a modern, novel-version Confessions of Nat Turner; he believes that without the rebellion, slavery might have ended earlier, possibly without the Civil War. So Insurrection's attack on how we remember history could be seen as cheating, a way of skipping thorny "facts" to make Turner a folk hero. The play is a massive cartoon, not deep in any of its characters, in spite of some excellent acting by the whole cast, especially Gregory Wallace as Ron, and Shona Tucker as both his Aunt Gertha and the plantation owner's annoying wife. And the thing sprawls; it's made of bright and novel stuff that cloys. But it's also funny and elegant in the way it expresses this idea that the past is never quite knowable. "Nat Turner, slavery -- big deal, move on!" Ron says at the beginning. "But it won't let me go." History holds him, yet he can barely grasp it. What makes Insurrection so good is the nose-thumbing attitude it takes toward this terrible truth, refusing to treat history with the sentimental heaviness that sometimes keeps whole nations from moving on.
In the middle of Tread Dance Theater's recent show, when a clock face is projected across a dancer's torso, I awake with alarm to the time zone of the work: a woman's early 20s. At that age, we catch sight of time -- the way it moves, the fact that it surrounds us. It's as if time were people and they were constantly passing us by; we suddenly notice we're alone. Young enough to be denied the dubious comfort of treading the same ground over and over again, we're old enough to stand outside the moment and look backward to what feels irretrievable and forward to what feels like outer space. Tread, a newly formed company of young women, inhabits this state of mind. Its show keeps returning to the isolation of being -- and being female. For the most part, though, the choreographers don't illuminate this condition. Like the rest of us, they can't see what's overtaking them.
Robin Kurland's Part 1: Folds of Memory is an exception. In slouchy gray slacks with perfect pockets for anxious hands, four women dance variations on the theme of lonely waiting. The piece opens with them arrayed in a disheveled line; they stand at oblique angles to one another, bodies gawky with self-consciousness and faces looking off vaguely toward something that won't come near. Throughout the dance, they maintain close proximity but don't really notice each other until late along; then, they huddle together, trying to warm themselves with their neighbors' skin.
The piece jumps from one odd activity to another, accompanied by music that evokes the slap-slap of windshield wipers and a subway train's rush. Dancers scuttle crablike on their backs, suspend arms overhead as if hanging from a Muni bar, and crawl into the negative spaces of one another's rubbled bodies. The concerted awkwardness of these sequences contradicts the dancers' lush beauty, which exposed bellies and barely veiled breasts accentuate. The contrast between their bodies and how they use them merges the ideas of isolation and of nubile sexuality into a single entity. Folds of Memory suggests that as a young woman wades through the minutes and years suddenly at hand, even her body -- that thing ostensibly closest to her -- doesn't save her from feeling anxiously alone. In fact, it's part of the feeling. Her body refuses to belong to her.
Tread's three solos -- nearly half the show -- confirm the choreographers' preoccupation with isolation. The solo seems like a natural form for exploring aloneness, but its apparent appropriateness is exactly what makes it unsuitable. When form (the solo) and content (solitude) come this close, they manage to diminish each other's effect. On the other hand, if you can get the solo's few elements to work for you, their power is magnified; a solo is like painting only in black. Chantal Lucier's Asa Nisi Masa (Anima: The Soul) does succeed in intensifying the space around her. Making her way in fluid swoops along a diagonal of light, Lucier turns space into a viscous presence. She is pitted against it, her thick liquid partner, in a combative duet. She falls into it, pulls away, gathers it to her, and scatters it outward. An interesting way to convey internal struggle if, in 1930, Martha Graham hadn't danced a violent Lamentation inside a tube of stretchy cloth. Despite the fact that Graham conquered the subject, subsequent generations continue to wear it increasingly thin.
Unlike Graham, Lucier mollifies personal struggle with bland prettiness. Kurland's ensemble work excepted, most of the show's seven pieces want to be pretty but leave us to supply the reasons why. The revamped Spice Girls in Carmen Carnes' Femme Fatality can't decide whether to enjoy the erotic power our culture lends them -- doing a Madonna or Mae West, in other words, mocking what they have by stretching its parameters -- or to reject their advantage head-on. This ambivalence might be interesting if Carnes works it. As it is, the dancers' cat-walking, leg-splaying, girly-skipping, ass-wiggling display is too mild to be subversive and so throws us back to the tired, pain-laced reasons we wouldn't want to enjoy it.
Like daytime talk shows, the avant-garde genre known as solo performance sometimes fetishizes the unique individual experience as the sine qua non of meaning. The rarer the individual, the more meaningful the performance. A one-woman show about a cross-dressing butch going through menopause sounds like that principle taken to a ludicrous extreme -- she's so weird, she must be artistic.
As a 53-year-old grandmother who passes for a thirtysomething man, Peggy Shaw does indeed possess an unusual perspective on aging, gender, and desire. But Menopausal Gentleman, her new semi-autobiographical show, bears no resemblance to the naked anecdotal confessionals of Spalding Gray or Josh Kornbluth. Rather, she's a stream-of-consciousness diva who recalls the (brief) era when "performance artist" wasn't just a punch line but an auspicious new field for intrepid innovators. Though her work springs from personal experience, she deftly filters it through the discerning sieve of her imagination. The result is a dense, magnificent landscape of words, images, and movement -- both integrated and original.
Shifting easily between poetic rhapsody and self-effacing satire, she draws us with an inexorable charisma into her intimate observations of hot flashes, death, and loneliness. In part this is an effect she achieves with sheer idiosyncratic skill. From her spasmodic lip-syncing to Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" to an elegant foot-and-hand dance illuminated by small lights in her sleeves and pant legs, her movements are stylized but never dancerly. Her voice can roar, whisper, howl -- and quip: "People think that in menopause, women get to be a lot like men: They grow beards and get dried out. I guess that's people's definition of a man: a hairy, dried-out woman."
Shaw is no Janey-come-lately to performance art. She's been in the New York lesbian experimental scene for 30 years, receiving two Obies for her work with a group called Split Britches. One of those shows, a collaboration with "NEA Four" Holly Hughes called Dress Suits to Hire (1987), introduced the genre of "dyke noir." When I saw the show in New York, it was the first time I'd encountered Shaw's dangerous aesthetic cocktail of hard-bitten one-liners and lush unfurling images. But since Hughes had received most of the press, I didn't remember Shaw's involvement. As Shaw took the stage in a pinstriped suit to launch into a monologue about sweating, insomnia, and the "tiger inside," her writerly voice was unmistakable. "I was born a gentleman," she seethed, her voice thrumming with hard-boiled rhythms. "So butch I don't have to talk about it. It speaks for itself. I sacrificed being a woman for youth. A woman passing as a man looks like a younger man. A man passing as a woman looks like an older woman. That's just the way it goes."
As the show unfolds, Shaw plays on our emotions perilously. Telling lovelorn tales, her flesh sagging, she becomes tender, fragile, and naked; but again and again she undercuts these emotions with tossed-off jokes. When the audience laughs, she hisses: "It's not funny!" submerging us again in the strange nether world of our own mortality. Funny, not funny -- well, maybe a little bit.
-- Carol Lloyd
Death of a Salesman. By Arthur Miller. Directed by Chris Phillips and Jean Shelton. Starring Robert Elross, Niki Hersh, Finn Curtin, and Joe Gilmartin. At the Actors Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), through Feb. 8. Call 296-9179.
The dark and sleepy realism of Death of a Salesman has an antique feel, like the faithful rattle of an old Cadillac. The Actors Theater is reviving the play now for a monthlong extension of its late-December run, and the set, with its sooty brick and dingy wallpaper and old gas stove, is perfect. So is Robert Elross. He plays Willy Loman as a petty, sweet, arrogant, tired, tyrannical, earnest, and vulnerable man. Some people think of Loman as a midcentury poster boy for everything that was wrong with America before the 1960s, but Elross presents a shaded hero, someone likable and even familiar, with ideals and personality but no inner life, and consequently no way of seeing his ideals through. This is perfect, because everything Loman lacked is still sickeningly lacking in the average American life right now; the malady Arthur Miller set down in 1949 has simply changed its clothes.
Loman is the ultimate Social Guy: "Be liked," he tells his sons, "and you will never want." At the time of the play his two grown sons are home. Happy is a successful businessman; Biff is a drifting 34-year-old, and Willy seems troubled by Biff's outward failure. He mutters to himself in the kitchen, with his memories replaying in ghostly flashback scenes that must have seemed like clever expressionism in 1949 but clank a little now, quaintly. The flashbacks show the arc of Willy's failure; they also show how Biff has grown from a high school athlete with great expectations into a feckless, overgrown boy. Biff respected his father in high school, but when he learned that old Dad wasn't so admirable after all he began to feel unmoored: Willy's outward life, like everyone's, is a sham.
The other actors in this production orbit Elross like wavering moons. In general, the closer they are to the middle, the better. Niki Hersh -- who was brilliant as the main character in the Jewel Theater's Road to Mecca last summer -- plays a solid Linda Loman (Willy's wife), though she's powerful only when she has to grope for a line, not in fluent speeches. Finn Curtin works up to a strong performance as Biff, starting out starchily but growing into something harsh and torn. Joe Gilmartin is also solid, and Bruce Mackey plays the Lomans' neighbor Charlie with a beautifully felt, ironic gravity. So the core of the show is tight and does credit to the play. Some of the outer characters are played by actors not unlike Willy Loman, performers unaware of themselves.
-- Michael Scott Moore
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