Displaced Persons
The Chinese Art of Placement. By Stanley Rutherford. Directed by Glynis Rigsby. Starring John Robb. At the Phoenix Theater, 301 Eighth St. (at Folsom), through Feb. 28. Call 621-4423.

Feng shui is the modish Chinese art of interior design, of shaping spaces and arranging furniture so a building's chi, or vital energy, won't be blocked. A friend of mine who knows about these things told me the Phoenix Theater had bad feng shui, which could be the reason the Phoenix is closing after its current show -- beyond the plain reason, I mean, which is that it's lost its lease -- because the warehouselike space has a high canted ceiling that Chinese placement-artists would probably call "unbalanced." But that was always part of its charm. Unbalanced things are interesting; you expect them to collapse. John Robb, who holds up the severely unbalanced character of Sparky Litman through the long, hilarious, and heartbreaking monologue The Chinese Art of Placement, seems to realize how engaging it can be to watch someone with no firm sense of himself catch a glimpse of why he's suffering, and the emotional collapse that results onstage can only be described by a word I have never applied to a play in this town, because it happens so rarely: catharsis. The Chinese Art of Placement -- a new play -- is good for ancient reasons.

Sparky Litman is a pathetic loner, middle-aged, in an unspecific low-rent neighborhood where until recently he spent his time writing poems. "Ex-poet," as a job description, is pretty low, but Litman knows why he burned his work. He wants to be normal. He wants to entertain friends at his place. "It'll be a stand-up affair," he tells people on the phone, "you know -- a wine-and-cheese kind of thing." Litman, unfortunately, has no friends. He's into feng shui because he wants his apartment to seem nice, but the way Robb plays him -- as an eccentric raconteur in the manner of Tom Waits or maybe Kramer, with teased-out hair, a cable-knit sweater, and a gaunt, aging, gaptoothed face -- no one would quite want to spend the evening with him. This is clear to the audience from the beginning and becomes clearer to Sparky as he talks. He's rancorous, angry, vulnerable, awkward, repressed-gay, childish, and given to tantrums. He has no roots. "No one even told us we were Jewish," he says. "No one even told us we were Mexican. All I know is that I was born in L.A." Then he rants, beautifully, about other people in his neighborhood who munch Frito-Lays and stare complacently at the ants that invade all the buildings and are currently driving Litman out of his mind. Robb can pull a heart-wrenching howl of despair from the most common line if you give him enough space to run -- he has access to depths of insanity and grief -- and this particular tantrum is so fucking felt it makes you tremble.

Litman also tells a story about working for the CIA during the Vietnam War. A beautiful Russian spy once seduced him on a trans-Siberian train, and Sparky gives all the pornographic details. It's the realization of his adolescent dreams -- and it's blazingly funny -- but Sparky winds up feeling like a failure and a dupe. "I guess we're all dupes some of the time," he says, and by the end this is exactly what's so good about the show, that Sparky's extreme and wrenching displacement feels not so distant or strange.

-- Michael Scott Moore

The Muck of the Modern
"Open Field: improvisation swap meet." At ODC Theater, 3153 17th St. (at South Van Ness), Feb. 5-8. Call 863-9834.

A few months ago, at an otherwise unremarkable show, the improvisational video dance troupe Bodycartographers instructed their audience to direct them: "fast forward," "rewind," "pause," "repeat." The response was electric -- a room suddenly, collectively, catching its breath and letting it out in a clamor of excited commands. I longed for another such engaging occasion at the more recent "Open Field: improvisation swap meet," presented a couple of weeks ago at ODC Theater.

Improvisation is a telling symptom of modern art, where power and beauty are shot through with the messy process of a work's creation. Merce Cunningham reveals his dice-throwing method in his pieces' random repetitions, reeled out in time and space. In a Philip Glass opera, we experience the architectonic shape through incremental tonal modulations. And a cubist Picasso, cutting up and rearranging perspective, proves that his vision is made up. Presenting without adornment effort's rough edges, improv is mainly a research tool for art practitioners. But it can fascinate even laypeople when it lets them in on the medium's ingredients, the raw material of more polished forms.

For "Open Field," co-curators Kathleen Hermesdorf and Albert Mathias, a couple of the grandmasters of the experimental performing arts scene here, brought together two dozen favored colleagues in theater, dance, and music. Among them: the crash-and-burn dance group Core, vocalist and choreographer Kim Epifano, and action-theater man Sten Rudstr¿m. The performers, grouped in twos or threes, were asked to improvise for about 12 minutes each. No common method linked the pieces; some performers used the principles of contact improv (giving and sharing weight and touch), others worked from a script or bare narrative, and still others from god-knows-what. There were abundant isolated moments of surprise and humor, but as a whole the bits were too often self-absorbed, lost, meandering, directionless. You wondered, like a philosophically inclined teen-ager having a bad trip, is this really as bad as it seems or do I just not know how to take it?

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