By Jonathan Ramos
By Juan De Anda
By Mollie McWilliams
By Juan De Anda
By Mollie McWilliams
By Juan De Anda
By Jonathan Curiel
By Alexis Coe
Beware the Holy Vampire
Blood on the Cat's Neck. By Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Directed by Mark Nishimura. Starring Katie Hemmeter, Carlo Mapa, Brian Bonham, Jereme Anglin, Howard Squires, Ray Rea, Nadine Defranoux, Dawn Nott, Sarah Green, and Janine Pibal. At Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (at Turk), through Feb. 14. Call 931-2699.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder is widely considered a genius, even though a large fraction of his life's work is boring. He was an enormously prolific director who managed a few great films -- The Marriage of Maria Braun, and the 14-part epic Berlin Alexanderplatz -- plus the usual run of material that prolific artists churn out because they have no patience or inclination to judge their own work. Blood on the Cat's Neck is a Fassbinder play from 1971 that never made it to film. It is obscure, frustrating, and overlong. For no obvious reason it's subtitled "Marilyn Monroe vs. the Vampires," and it takes a pornographic cartoon character named Phoebe Zeitgeist as a heroine; Phoebe is a vampire from another solar system who drops in on contemporary German society without the faintest understanding of human language. She's supposed to write "an eyewitness account of human democracy," but what she sees instead is failed romance, vanity, grief, oppression, greed, and the generally stifled private lives of a confused group of people. Almost no democracy happens -- nobody even votes. I'm not sure if this is part of the play or just an inconsistency.
Phoebe recites scraps of dialogue as she watches vignettes from these people's lives; when everyone gathers at a cocktail party at the end, Phoebe repeats intimate and embarrassing lines to the strangers, who think she's either profound or insane. The point, apparently, is that most people can't face their private suffering, although why they should face it at a cocktail party isn't clear. What's kept from the audience at the beginning is that Phoebe has bitten a cat's neck with her vampire teeth and ingested a dose of cat nature; so when she bites the party guests at the end, to understand their behavior, it makes almost no sense unless you've read either the play or the extensive director's notes handed out to critics. At last Phoebe recites a passage from Immanuel Kant, which is pretentious, and the audience gets to go home.
Some of the tightly whittled vignettes are interesting. The acting is up and down, but good performances by Jereme Anglin, Howard Squires, Nadine Defranoux, and Janine Pibal -- and sometimes Brian Bonham -- make the intertwining lives fun to follow. And of course it takes guts to revive an obscure Fassbinder script. But the broad indictment of bourgeois society is too broad; it loses its point in this production, partly because director Mark Nishimura hasn't mastered the art of what to leave up to the audience's imagination. He leaves both too much and not enough; and he treats the material with more reverence than Fassbinder himself would have done.
France's great poet-criminal Jean Genet based The Maids on a real 1933 murder involving two servant girls who felt so victimized by their bourgeoise mistress they decided to hack her to pieces. Genet's version ends a little differently; his maids play a psychological game of mistress-and-servant that leads to either murder or suicide, depending on how you look at the dream-bound ingestion of poisoned tea by the maid pretending to be Madame. The play is an hour and a half of heavy slogging through the minds of these women; it's been said that Genet's version of the story is "scholarship masquerading as theater," and I agree. Genet has a tendency to set a philosophical gridiron over the characters he writes, a lot like Sartre and Cocteau, the two men responsible for making Genet famous after they sprang him from jail.
The two maid characters, Claire and Solange, are overserious, terrified, and obsessed with their own status. The first half-hour of the play is devoted to relentless self-drama and hollering. Then the mistress comes home, interrupting their game, and the maids are eerily quiet. Justine Turner plays an over-the-top mistress who looks like something from Dangerous Liaisons, with heavy makeup, a piled wig, and a ridiculous sky-blue dress. She flits and chats with a cartoon breeziness that both saves the production and makes you sympathize with the maids' plot to kill her. I'm not sure this is the best effect. To me, Genet's script is interesting because he treats social status as a figment of the mind; the maids want to kill the woman because they feel oppressed, not because she oppresses them. But Turner's Madame is the most colorful part of this show, and it would be sad if she played it down.
After she leaves, Claire and Solange go back to their game. Their dialogue never rises above an opaque floor of panic and psychological dogma, of moving in and out of mistress-and-servant roles with a fury that has to, but doesn't, come from inside. "It would be a fine thing if masters could pierce the darkness where shadows live. But that, my dear, is our darkness," one of them says, and on and on in that vein, with poetry but no suspense. Genet wallows in density; that's part of the problem. But Kathryn Wood and Janis DeLucia also strain to give Claire and Solange a manic intensity they just don't feel. The rushed and hollered scenes aren't engaging. This show is about a half-hour shorter than it could be -- director Josh Marchesi has either wisely cut the script or else the actors are paced to finish in record time -- but it still feels long. After Madame cheerfully neglects to drink her poisoned tea, you wish the maids would just get on with it.